Episode 12: Have You Accepted Your Child's Temperament?
There is a term that psychologists and child development specialists use when talking about parent-child relationships, and that is the "goodness of fit." How well does your temperament fit with your child’s temperament? This is often at the root of many of our parenting issues and why we may have more trouble with one child than another. Siblings are the ultimate science experience- they are a built-in comparison group. Parents with more than one child are often more quickly convinced about this whole temperament thing because they've seen it and they are often wondering why did this work fine with this child but seems to be a disaster when I implement it with this child? Temperament.
I think it’s really important for caregivers to get the gist of temperament so we can set realistic expectations for our child and not get caught up in pathologizing our child’s normal, albeit annoying, behavior.
After we get clear on what your goodness of fit looks like, I’ll make some suggestions for how you can best leverage this information to benefit your relationship with your child. This is meant to be a preemptive episode, a tool for you to start using now, to stop some seriously negative interactions from forming between you are your child.
Understanding temperament gives you clarity on what your child prefers, how they interact socially, what behavioral issues are more likely to be present and what power struggles they may find themselves in with you, their siblings, friends, teachers and so on.
As far as our mindfulness skills go, our child’s temperament pushes us to use our skill of acceptance. Accepting they are different from us or their well-adjusted sibling and are not necessarily going to change (research suggests temperament is a fairly fixed trait). Or maybe accepting that they are terrifyingly similar to us, we'll get back to that in a bit.
Parents bring their children into therapy all the time because of issues that the child is having at home or at school that are, in the scheme of things, normal. This does not mean that the family doesn't need support and often they benefit greatly from slowing down and exploring what is going on or bringing information back to a teacher or coach. But does this mean the child needs to be diagnosed with a psychological disorder? No.
As we learn more about temperament, you will probably be able to identify before I point it out to you, the children that will more likely get caught under the magnifying glass of parents and teachers. Temperament is innate, we are born with it, but it doesn't mean that friction must be the only path forward. Some children will need more support or very explicit guidance from adults during different activities or interactions.
Let's take a look at the nine traits of temperament. Because there are nine different pieces to this, temperament can look really unique for all of us. Think about each trait as a spectrum for which an individual may be high or low on.
1. Sensitivity. Noise, textures, flavors. Is your child having sleep issues because they are uncomfortable in their pajamas? Are you sensitive to noise so when they experiment with yelling or they cry- you start to lose your cool? (When relevant I will include a possible magnifying glass moment for us to better picture how this temperament trait may make it more difficult for our child to fall in line or under the radar of parents and teachers) Magnifying glass moment- a child becomes overwhelmed in the classroom or at a restaurant due to literal sensory overload and begins to cry or act out.
2. Activity. Everyone has a different level of activity they are naturally inclined towards. Can one of you entertain yourself happily for an hour and the other prefers to be active, engaged and be outside? Does one child happily take breaks while your other child can go, go, go? Magnifying glass moment- a child keeps getting out of their chair during dinner or during story time.
3. Intensity. Does your child express their feelings strongly and experience their feelings strongly? Or are they more reserved and hard to read? How does this match up with your emotional expression style? Magnifying glass moment- a child cries easily after falling down or being rejected by a peer.
4. Adaptability. Does your child need a lot of prompting for changes and transitions? Do they love their routine and get pretty thrown off if it changes? A mismatch here between parent and child (especially if the parent is really fly by the seat of their pants adaptable) can cause a lot of problems because your child's less adaptive temperament requires you to be extremely organized in order to keep the day to day the same and foresee changes and give your child a heads up. Magnifying glass moment- a child becomes upset to realize they are not able to sit in their usual seat at snack time.
5. Mood. Is your child generally in a good mood? Or are they serious and see things from a more negative perspective? This mismatch can offer insight for you both but at its worst is draining. Optimists and pessimists can really wear each other out if special attention is not given to validate the feelings of the other. Magnifying glass moment- emotional issues can be tricky to identify if a child is super sunny or if they bend towards gloom but are not depressed.
6. Approach/Withdrawal. Is your child cautious or slow to warm up to new situations or do they jump right in? If you embrace all things new, keep in mind it may take a lot more energy for them to keep up with you. Or a grocery trip with a very approachable child may cause some anxiety for a shy parent- now caught in a conversation with every other shopper in the store. Magnifying glass moment- all the children play together at a park birthday party except for your child who clings to your leg the whole time and eventually wants to join but wants you to come as well.
7. Persistence. How much of an effort does your child make? Do they keep trying and trying to figure something out until they get it or do they get frustrated and give up quick? Persistence is important for learning and attaining goals when turned on parents it can mean you find yourself explaining why you are saying no all the time and maybe even caving. Magnifying glass moment- this child can have difficulty following directions when they are in the middle of a “project.”
8. Regularity or Rhythm. Is your child fairly predictable? Do they want to eat around the same time, have a poopy diaper at the same time etc. each day? This rhythm may make them easier for you to attend to. It can take more energy for both parent and child to keep an irregular child regulated.
9. Distractibility. If your child is easily distracted it may seem like they are ignoring your requests when they lose focus on their way to brush their teeth. On the bright side, they may shift focus from being upset quite quickly. If you are easily distracted it may be frustrating for a more sensitive child that needs your support feeling regulated. Magnifying glass moment- too many to count! Mindfulness is an important practice for these children and adults.
So let's pause here, I want to check in on how you may be feeling about this information. If you are realizing, wow, we are not a naturally "good fit" all is not lost, not by a long shot. First, acknowledge your bravery for recognizing this and sitting with some disappointment. But here is the thing, you already knew this, you already felt the small struggles that kept popping up in your relationship with this child. Nothing has changed, we are simply naming it.
Now that you have this information about the goodness of fit between yourself and your child, what can you do?
Practice patience and compassion for yourself and your child.
Recognize that it is okay to adjust your expectations and it won’t be the last time you have to do this as a parent, or as someone is in a relationship with another person, so it’s good practice. This may be a long and personal process. When I bring testing results back to parents, it's often a relief to understand why a child and even parents, have been struggling, but it is also heavy to realize your parenting duties may be more intensive and different than that of your friends, family or even the way you parent another child. This may be a good time to take inventory of the supports you are connected to, whether it be your tribe, a good school system or an excellent therapist. Once you have done this it is easier to move forward and manage your parenting with intention.
Accepting your child's temperament and making adjustments to your routine and to the way you respond to them, makes everyone's life easier. For your child, they get to experience feeling accepted for who they are- this will absolutely ignite immediate success in your bonding and relationship.
Enjoy your child's innate skills and teach them new ones. Think about your child's qualities that may be different than others in the family. How can these catapult them into success? That persistence that is exhausting when aimed at you, can serve them in the future for getting through a tough graduate program or inventing or creating something even when others tell them it's impossible. But in the present moment, for your sanity and for them to understand how to respect others, you may need to implement a behavior plan the focuses on helping them accept rules and social norms and the wishes of others. By doing this you are helping them to be succesful in connecting to their current environment while honoring their authentic self.
Do some inner work. What do their differences or similarities with you or their other parent bring up for you emotionally? Some parents find that it's not so much their child's behaviors that are tripping them up from connecting deeply, but the way they feel emotionally about these trait similarites and differences. A theme you will hear on this show is that we must understand ourselves because we are deserving of this self-care. And the benefit to our child is our stuff doesn't become theirs, or get in the way of our relating to them. They will have plenty of their own stuff, don't worry.
Get creative. If you have identified a similar trait between your child and yourself then how have you managed this? Share that with them. If they have a different temperament from yours, you may be unsure of how to coach them. Explore with your friends, partner or sibling, start noticing others with these traits that manage them effectively and get curious about how they are doing this so you can offer your child some healthy choices. And of course, if some of the things we have talked about are causing distress in you or your child, connect with a professional and start a conversation with your child's team (teachers, doctors, coaches, grandparents etc.)- what are they noticing? Bringing the team in helps us gain perspective, it helps us to weed out whether or not this is our concern due to our expectations or if this is really something affecting your child. Trust your gut and keep exploring if you feel like no one is seeing what you see.