Understanding Your Child's Temperament
By: Elizabeth Pantley
|This typical Saturday finds my nine-year-old son, David, in full football gear, tackling our 13-year-old neighbor Zack in the yard. We can hear David's whoops and cheers throughout the house. He'll show up in the kitchen sooner or later, dirty and hungry (make that very dirty and ravenously hungry), most likely with Zack in tow. He'll whirl through the house, leaving a trail of noise and clutter in his wake. No one with ears ever has to ask where David is.|
|Eleven-year-old Vanessa, on the other hand, sits at the kitchen table poring over her art kit, carefully choosing a color scheme for a drawing. She'll be at this quite a while since, as in nearly everything in her life, Vanessa doesn't rush. She ponders.|
|Two children. Same parents. Same home. Yet so very different in temperament. Even before birth, babies show their unique temperaments. Some are extremely active in utero — kicking, prodding, and shifting at all hours. They are active newborns, breastfeeding every hour day and night, announcing their presence in no uncertain terms — like my David. Others seem to sway in the womb, with gentle butterfly movements and slow-motion rolls. As newborns, they cry little, sleep regularly, and shower everyone with peaceful, intense smiles. You guessed it — like my Vanessa.|
|Numerous studies have shown that temperament is apparent in infancy and remains consistent throughout life. Parents who ignore a child's inborn nature are doomed to struggle against it, while parents who identify and work with it find the parenting journey more pleasant.|
|Perhaps the best parenting move you can make right now is to form a picture of your child's temperament. This will help you devise the unique approach that's best suited to your unique child. But where to start?|
|Following are specific areas psychologists use to evaluate a person's one-of-a-kind makeup, along with hints on parenting each type of child:|
A. Activity Level: Active or Quiet
|Patience and planning are important, too. Don't expect an active child to sit through a lengthy restaurant dinner, a long church service, or any other stationary event: Such unrealistic expectations run contrary to the way your child is made and will only end in frustration. Keep a bag of quiet activities on hand just in case you do find yourselves in such a situation, and be willing to take a fidgety child for a walk.|
|With a quiet child, allow extra time for her to get organized. She may need more time for simple tasks, such as tying shoes or dressing. Be practical: When you're in a hurry, save yourself some stress and tie those shoes yourself. She can practice lacing later.|
B. Intensity of Emotion: High or Moderate Intensity?
|When a child reacts with high emotional intensity in any given situation, the parent typically responds in kind. For example, a child who is screaming in a temper tantrum or shouting in anger usually causes a parent to raise her voice to an equal volume. But this doesn't teach a child how to control his own emotions and often escalates the situation. As difficult as it may be, thoughtful action and reasonable voice are the best responses. Over time, enough parental modeling can help an intense child learn to control himself.
Try the "Stop-Space-Regroup-Redo" technique:
Stop: When you begin to feel angry, stop. Stop talking. Stop moving. Defuse your own emotions first so you can help your child.
|You may think that a child with moderate emotional intensity is the easier to raise, but this isn't always the case. These children are often very hard to read. They mope, sulk, or hide when they are having strong feelings. These children need help expressing themselves.|
|Approach a child like this gently and offer a guess on her feelings to open up discussion: "It seems like you're feeling sad because you couldn't go with Daddy today." This isn't a one-time tactic – you must keep talking and listening right on through the teenage years. It can be a lot of work, and you'll feel sometimes that letting her mope is easier than drawing her out. If you can help her understand and express her feelings as often as you can, however, she'll be a much happier person.|
C. Adaptability: Flexible or Unyielding?
|Clearly, a child's flexibility makes life easier. On the flip side, this easygoing type may tend not to finish anything, rather gleefully flitting from task to task without concern for completing whatever he leaves behind. This child rarely follows through without plenty of parental reminders, and can benefit from written routines — a simple poster for a toddler's bedtime ritual or a more complicated daily chore chart for an older child. The key: Keep your reminders pleasant, and refrain from nagging and complaining.|
|What about the unyielding child? She functions best when she knows what to expect. Being aware of what's upcoming for the day, week, month — even the year — can help her feel more in control and therefore more relaxed and accommodating. So, don't abruptly announce, "Time to go — get your shoes on!" (which often results in a temper tantrum regardless of the child's age). Rather, try briefing your child on the day's events each morning, and give two or three warnings in advance of each — e.g.:|
- "After breakfast, we're going to Grandma's."
|This may seem tedious to you, but it beats fighting a tantrum on your way out the door. Once you get into this habit, you'll find it's fairly easy to keep.|
D. Distractibility: Easily Distractible or Focused?
|If your child is easily distractible, be sure to corral your child's full attention when speaking to her. While she'll ignore a shouted, "Time to go!" from the next room, she can't avoid a message delivered eyeball to eyeball. Once you're in her focus, keep your instructions simple, and utter them one at a time. "Get your shoes and coat on, grab your backpack, and get in the car" combines four requests — and you'll almost certainly lose her somewhere after the second. Instead, hand directions out one or two at a time, and check in along the way: "Got your shoes on yet?"|
|Differences in distractibility are real and explain why one child can do her homework amid family activity with television blaring and dog barking, while another requires a quiet, secluded desk to stay focused.|
|Being mindful of these differences — and explaining them to your child without judgment toward either end of the spectrum — allow you both to work with, and not against, her basic nature.|
E. Biological Rhythms: Regular or Irregular?
|Biological rhythms tend to appear very clearly in the first two years of life. Some children sleep and eat at consistent times each day, while others exhibit sporadic and complicated patterns.|
|A child with a regular biological rhythm thrives when meals, naptimes, and bedtimes are respected and consistent. Likewise, these children don't do well with hectic or unpredictable daily schedules. Of course, sometimes we don't have the luxury of planning our days around our children's biological preferences. If and when that's the case, do your best to accommodate your child by letting him nap in the car or packing a lunch to eat on the road, for example.|
|A child with an irregular rhythm can pose just as many challenges, as this child can turn up hungry or tired at unexpected and inopportune times. Again, try to keep snacks on hand, and allow a nap as soon as you can. Modifying your schedule is often easier than dealing with a tired, hungry, fussy child!|
F. Mood: Optimist or pessimist?
|A little optimist can be a joy to be around; however, there are challenges, too. Sometimes you'll need or want your little Pollyanna to be more serious than she's willing to be, and you'll need to bring her down to earth. The challenge is in doing this carefully and lovingly, without crushing that joyful little spirit.|
|Far more challenging, though, is parenting the pessimist. This temperament trait can show up in very young children and have parents shaking their heads in dismay. A pessimistic child requires a loving parent to guide him through childhood with constant reminders to find the good in life. These kids tend to be emotionally intense, as well, so they broadcast their sadness and disappointment quite loudly. The mistake that parents often make — simply because they are human — is to respond with anger and frustration, which doesn't help. No parent is capable of constant cheerleading, however, so you simply have to do your best, as often as you can. Augment your efforts with uplifting books, videos, and audiotapes on subjects that cheer your child. Be wise, also, about the friends your child spends time with; two pessimists who spend too much time together will drag each other down. Encourage your child to spend time with more optimistic friends who tend to bolster his mood.|
G. Situational Approachability: Approaches or Withdraws?
|If your child approaches new people and situations with eagerness, encourage this positive social skill by exposing him to new experiences and showing your support. The drawback to this temperament is sometimes a lack of commitment to focus on or finish any one thing. Your social butterfly may need to learn how to stick with something long enough to master it, or to spend enough quality time with one child to benefit from a "best friend" relationship.|
|We often label more cautious children as "shy." This isn't really accurate, however, and is no way to create a healthy self-image. Instead, you need to help others (and she herself) see her temperament as positive. When someone calls your child "shy," carefully change this to "reserved" or "thoughtful"; if someone comments that he's "quiet," point out that he has a long attention span and is very focused. Learn to appreciate the strengths of your child's reserve, and your child eventually will, too.|
|Other ways to encourage your child:|
- ease him slowly into meeting strangers
H. Sensitivity: Sensitive or Not Sensitive?
|Once you see that your child has a high sensitivity level, you'll be more apt to tolerate unusual or annoying complaints. A highly sensitive child typically has a low pain tolerance, so even the smallest booboo calls for tender loving care. As annoying as fixing that sock seam or cutting off that tag can be, these are simple, quick tasks that can placate a whiny, fussing child.|
|At the other end of the scale, you need to keep an eye on the less sensitive child so you don't miss something. A child like this may live with a wart on his finger or a lump on his foot for a year before ever telling you about it. A great way to stay abreast of any physical changes is to incorporate a back rub into your post-bath routine so that you can spot-check for health issues.|
I. Persistence: Prevailing or Despairing?
|A persistent child has a trait that will serve him well as he grows up…and drive a parent crazy along the way! Since your persistent child won't take "no" for an answer, simply avoid giving a direct command whenever possible. Instead, offer a choice: "Do you want to put on your pajamas or brush your teeth first?" This child also likes to have a say in what's happening, so asking for and considering your child's input when appropriate can help things run more smoothly.|
|A child who lacks persistence can be easier to raise in some ways: He typically does as he's told without fuss. He can frustrate a parent, however, with his seeming inability to finish any task, or his unwillingness to try very hard when an obstacle stands in the way. This child requires gentle encouragement and a guiding hand. Saying, "You can do it" isn't enough; he needs you to actually help get things started just to reassure him that he can accomplish the task.|
Temper Your Temperament?
Here's a thought: Where do you stand, temperament-wise? It's just as important for you to be aware of your own makeup. Consider the traits listed here: You may suddenly realize that many of your battles with your child are due simply to the way your traits mesh or conflict with your child's. Exploring your own nature as it relates to your child's may help you modify your parenting actions to gain the most peace between you.
|So then, what if your temperament differs from your child's? That can be difficult, no question. For example, I'm clearly "active," while my own mother is "quiet." If I had a nickel for every time she said, "Slow down!" or "Sit still!" to me during my childhood, I could retire in style. She could do the same if she were similarly compensated for every time I implored her to hurry up. My mom lives with me now, and adulthood has changed neither of our temperaments. I'm still in constant motion, and she still moves slowly. What has changed? Our acceptance of each other's pace. And this acceptance has enabled us to enjoy each other for who we are, without insisting on change.|
|If you're an "active" parent with a "quiet" child, you're probably stressed by your child's dawdling and daydreaming. Conversely, if you're a "quiet" parent with an "active" child, you're probably frazzled by your child's constant activity. It's much better to identify this clash than to deny it, so you can handle it better. Of course, that doesn't mean you'll enjoy the difference, but being aware of it frees you to deal with it more realistically.|
Parenting With Temperament in Mind
Parenting is more enjoyable if you keep the child's temperament in mind. Of course, no parent can respond in a textbook way to each and every situation, and let's face it: sometimes you just want your child — temperament or not — to do what you want him to do, without any excuse or delay.
|Underlying any good advice about parenting is the admonition simply to do your best. When you succeed, enjoy it. And when you can't — let your love fill in the blanks, and everything will turn out fine in the end.|
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