March 11th, 2013
Any parent and certainly anyone with more than one child will attest to the fact that children are born with inbuilt personality traits, characteristics that define how they interact with the world. Some are cautious from infancy while others will leap in and ask questions later. Some feel things intensely (they cannot believe you would give them the red cup rather than the blue cup) while others are more laid back (they will accept the Thomas the Tank Engine plate if the Winnie the Pooh one is in the dishwasher). Some will nag you until they wear you down while others will accept a ‘no’ and the obverse of this is true too –some kids will give up easily when the going gets tough (and maybe up-end the jigsaw puzzle while they’re about it) while others will stick to it until they’ve mastered the task. Parents will know which of their children need to be told in advance what is going to happen (these ones need the five minute warnings before they have to stop playing and come to have a meal) and which ones will go with the flow. Some kids have phenomenal reserves of energy and can wear parents to a frazzle while others will occupy themselves quietly and may actually be quite difficult to enthuse. Some see the positive side of everything while others persist in seeing the cup as half empty.
Researchers have discovered that “temperament has biological, neurological and physiological underpinnings that affect your child’s mood, ability to calm himself and activity level. … But biology is not destiny….Whether and how strongly genes that underlie behaviours are turned on or expressed depends on the interaction and relationships a child has with the important people in his life.” (Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Raising your Spirited Child)
Understanding what your child’s temperament is and allowing for it is a cornerstone of successful and connected parenting. “You don’t get to choose your child’s temperament [I used to think what a shame this was as I could have been such a good parent to a slightly different child], nor does your child, but you do make a big difference. It is you who helps your child understand his temperament, emphasize his strengths, provides him with the guidance he needs to express himself appropriately, and gently nudges him forward.” (Kurcinka)
We can all recognise the above characteristics in ourselves too and sometimes one of the difficulties is the conflict between our own personalities and that of our children. One of our facilitators talks about trying to get her introverted son to be more social as she saw this as the way to happiness because she was such an extrovert herself. I’m still coaching my now adult children to understand the personality differences between themselves and their siblings. My extremely extrovert daughter will spend time with friends in order to re-charge her batteries while my son is perfectly happy with his own company and in fact needs to be on his own for periods to re-energise. She thinks her brother (who is no longer living at home) doesn’t care about her when he doesn’t contact her as often as she’d like.
Child psychologist Brian Daly, who teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia said he often encounters families where parents have no problems with one child but a lot of problems with the other. “One child is very well-behaved and fits their parenting style,” he explained. “You could say the child’s temperament is a good match or fit. They rave about that child; the child is responsive and respectful.” (Parenting Styles: Is Your Child’s Temperament A Good Fit With Yours? By Beth J. Harpaz 05/ 2/12 )
But with the other child, the parents may feel that they’re “constantly butting heads. There may be temper tantrums, digging in heels, but without an appropriate result. A lot of times parents have certain values and it can be hard to adjust those values to meet the temperament of the child.” Daly said parents who are just as stubborn as their kids often get into standoffs because “neither will give ground.”
In 1956 psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess found that children’s personalities could be put in three basic categories: easy, difficult, and slow to warm up. They also identified nine other variables that measured behaviours and traits like wilfulness, moodiness, activity levels, distractibility, attention span, and regularity in sleep, hunger and other biological functions. One finding from their research was that a good ‘fit’ between children and parents results when adult expectations, values and demands are in accord with a child’s natural capacities and behaviours.
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka urges us to look at temperament in positive ways. She says that “Identifying your child’s temperamental traits is like taking an X-ray. It helps you to recognize what’s going on inside of your child so you can understand how he is reacting to the world around him and why. Once you realize the reasons behind his responses, you can learn to work with them, ease the hassles, teach new behaviours where they are needed, and most important, help your child understand and like himself.”
How can we understand, manage and accommodate our children’s temperaments? Below are some ideas of temperamental characteristics taken from Kurcinka’s book Raising Your Spirited Child. We are all somewhere on a spectrum that encompasses two extremes and everything in between so I may find myself somewhere slightly to the introvert end of that spectrum. There are positives and negatives to each characteristic and it will really help if parents can see the good elements of certain character traits and know how to manage those aspects they find difficult.
Intensity -this can be framed as doing things with energy and enthusiasm. We need to recognise that it can lead to great frustration for the child and we need to help the intense child to recognise this quality about themselves and to teach them to respond to growing intensity before it overwhelms them. We can provide calming activities (such as massage or calming music), use time outs as calming strategies not as punishments and use humour to diffuse situations. Parents of intense children will want to provide lots of opportunities for exercise and adequate sleep.
Persistence – this can be seen as sticking to things, determination and commitment rather than stubbornness. Persistent children can be independent and capable. View this as a good thing! Parents need to problem solve with the child to find solutions that work for everyone. It will be important to be consistent with family rules. This involves being clear in the first place about what your values are. Discuss this between parents and then have a family meeting to draw up rules. When the child doesn’t want to do what’s required his feelings will need to be acknowledged. This will help him to let go of the issue.
Sensitivity – it helps to recognise that this child is tender hearted. His sensitivities to feelings make him empathetic but also prone to hurt. He may be creative. He may dislike loud noises, bright lights and crowds, be overwhelmed by too much choice and clutter, he may dislike being touched and may find his clothes scratchy. Protect this child from overstimulation and restrict electronics. Help him manage his feelings by talking to him about them, describing them and accepting them. Teach him to recognise when he is getting overstimulated and find ways to self soothe.
Perceptiveness – this child notices things, has great observational skills and may be very creative. She may also get distracted easily. It may be hard for her to focus and hear instructions. Encourage her to listen by giving her lots of descriptive praise and by asking her to repeat your instructions. Don’t give too many instructions at once. Write rules down or have them in picture form. Ask her what she needs to do more than telling her. Minimise distractions by providing quiet and uncluttered environments for work and play. Allow her plenty of down time to chill out after she has had to focus.
Adaptability – this child likes to be organised, needs to know what is happening and may find change difficult, including transitioning from one task to another. He needs help to be flexible. Parents need to let this child know what’s happening ahead of time and allow time for him to get used to things. 5 minute warnings (but not in a threatening way) are helpful.
Regularity – see this child as flexible and spontaneous and enjoy the surprises rather than focusing on the inconsistencies which his temperament will throw up. He will need help getting used to routine and will need a high degree of consistency –this may be difficult if the parent themselves is irregular. He’d make a great ER doctor, DJ, pilot, police officer or other professional who works crazy hours.
Energy – the child who is full of energy may be a great sports person and work really hard and it can wear parents out living with them so it is important to plan to accommodate high levels of energy. Provide activities that stimulate and try to avoid too many of those that require sitting still for long periods. Allow opportunities to let off steam after being confined.
First reaction – the cautious child will often reject things on first presentation and is slow to warm up but it is alright to observe and judge before joining in. Be glad that this child thinks things through (you will when he’s a teenager) and praise him for it. Parents can help by forewarning of activities, practising in role play, descriptively praising the child for taking some risks, reminding them of similar times when they were successful and allowing time. Help the child recognise that their first reaction may not be their final one –they can change their minds.
Mood – this analytical, serious child may see the negatives of situations and may need encouragement to see the positives –this may involve pulling something apart into smaller segments to see what they enjoy about it. Encourage them to see themselves as deep thinkers. Celebrate little successes with them by using descriptive praise and talking about the good in many things. Keep a golden book where you record their own good behaviours, successes and things to be grateful for.
Other writers have different ways of characterising temperamental traits.
Extroversion – The extrovert is energised by other people. This child thrives in situations where there is a lot of interaction, activity, and stimulation. Extroverts are usually quite social and gregarious and are able to talk to new people. They are comfortable in groups, quick to approach others including strangers, and enjoy working in busy stimulating environments. Conversely, they can feel quite lonely, bored and drained if they have to spend a lot of time alone. They may act before thinking, not listen to others and flare up quickly. Introverts, on the other hand, can become drained by too much interaction. They draw their energy from the inner world of thoughts, emotions, and ideas. They tend to be more contemplative and are likely to pursue solitary activities that allow them to work quietly and alone. They tend to wait and listen until they’ve formulated their thoughts before expressing them.
Get to know your child’s temperament by observing them closely and considering what activities they like and apply the above guidelines to see what fits. The better you know your child the better you will be able to draw out the best in him or her and be less frustrated.