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It’s a concept that parents may not be familiar with, but experts say it can explain a lot about family conflicts: Is your child’s temperament a good “fit” with yours?
For example, a stubborn child who’s a chip off the old block might have a lot of showdowns with an equally stubborn mom or dad. But contrasting temperaments don’t necessarily assure good results: A determined child might overwhelm an overly flexible parent.
Many personality traits such as these are inborn, but “temperaments can also be colored by the environment in which children are raised,” said child psychologist Brian Daly, who teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
That means parents who take a step back to consider their child’s personality traits may be able to tailor their childrearing style to deal more effectively with problems.
Much of the research on child temperament is based on the New York Longitudinal Study, in which psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess followed a group of children from birth to adulthood beginning in 1956. Thomas and Chess, who were married, 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 behaviors and traits such as willfulness, 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 behaviors. Their last book, published in 1999, was called Goodness of Fit. (Thomas died in 2003, Chess died in 2007.)
But their theory was not just a way of letting parents off the hook by blaming kids for personality traits they could not control. The takeaway for parents was that conflicts resulting from a poor fit between parent and child might be ameliorated if childrearing practices could be changed. The theory has withstood the test of time, with psychologists and other experts who work with children and parents still using some of these concepts today.
Resa Fogel, a psychologist who practices in Montclair and Teaneck, N.J., was one of the children in the original study. “When I was little, they came to my house all the time and interviewed and watched me,” said Fogel. “They were the nicest people. I thought they were another set of grandparents.”
She became interested in psychology, an interest that was fueled when she got a job assisting Thomas in his research at New York University. She used some of the original studies for her dissertation, which looked at how children with difficult temperaments end up behaving.
“You would think people with difficult temperaments are automatically very hard people to be around,” she said. “I showed that if there’s a goodness of fit between the environment and the person, then even if you have a difficult temperament, you’re not going to necessarily misbehave. In other words, there’s hope for people who are tough.”
Difficult children “are going to be harder” for parents, she acknowledged, “but you have to have the right way of handling it. That’s what goodness of fit is. It’s like a puzzle you put together.”
Arthur Robin, director of psychology training at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, said one common problem he encounters is a child with ADHD or “a very hyper-impulsive child” who has “a passive, depressed, lethargic mom. The child is going to get to do anything he or she likes because the mom is not going to have the energy level to set down some structure.”
Another common problem is “a very rigid, willful child and a highly flexible parent,” Robin said. “The parent is going to go with whatever the child wants. The child is going to end up really spoiled or have a strong sense of entitlement.”
Sometimes problems are rooted in the temperament of the parent, not the child. “If a parent is extremely moody, and a child is not very even-tempered, the child is going to get really upset and scared, and may develop in an introverted manner because they can’t deal with the extremes of parent moodiness,” Robin said.
With willfulness, Robin says, he tries to recast the trait as “determination” and encourages parents to channel it into “positive activities to move the child ahead.” Teenagers might be encouraged “to fight for some kind of cause, or sometimes parents can get them to spend a lot of time on creative pursuits, so it’s not all channeled into conflicts with parents.” Music or artistic pursuits may be an especially good outlet for moody children, Robin said.
Daly 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.”
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.”
Choose your battles
Daly said parents who are just as stubborn as their kids often get into standoffs because “neither will give ground.” In these cases, it may not work to take a hard line approach of, “if you can’t comply with this, then you’re going to get in more and more trouble.”
It also pays to pick your battles carefully. When a little girl couldn’t get out of the house without a tantrum over what to wear, Daly counseled her parents to let her choose her own outfits even if they weren’t quite as coordinated as the parents wished.
With teens, said Robin, if they’re “sneaking out in the middle of the night,” you have more important things to focus on than whether their room is clean. “The stuff that isn’t worth fighting about, let it drop,” Robin said.
Another thing to keep in mind when a child’s personality presents challenges, Fogel said: “This is the temperament she was born with; this is how she acts, this is how you act. You try to find a way to make things better but there’s no magic answer, there’s no formula.”
Parenting is one of the toughest jobs around. Guiding children in today’s world takes a huge amount of physical and emotional energy. Parenting is a lively dance involving the interplay between the child’s style and the parent’s approach and responses.
What is Temperament?
Children are born with their natural style of interacting with or reacting to people, places, and things???their temperament. In the late 1950s, temperament research began with the work of Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and associates. The New York Longitudinal Study identified nine temperament characteristics or traits. The researchers found that these nine traits were present at birth and continued to influence development in important ways throughout life. By observing a child’s responses to everyday situations, the researchers could assess these temperaments. Temperament is stable and differs from personality, which is a combination of temperament and life experiences, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.
Since the 1950s, many scientific studies of temperament have continued to show that children’s health and development are influenced by temperament. We all know children who are much more challenging to deal with than other children, starting at birth. The realization that many behavioral tendencies are inborn???and not the result of bad parenting???is perhaps one of the most important insights parents gain from learning more about temperament.
The examination of a child’s temperament generally occurs when the child’s behavior is difficult. Clinicians use a series of interviews, observations, and questionnaires that measure the nine temperament traits using a spectrum (scale) indicating mild to intense responses or reactions. By understanding temperament, the parent can work with the child rather than trying to change his or her inborn traits. The nine temperament traits and an explanation of the dimensions are given below.
- Activity: Is the child always moving and doing something OR does he or she have a more relaxed style?
- Rhythmicity: Is the child regular in his or her eating and sleeping habits OR somewhat haphazard?
- Approach/withdrawal: Does he or she “never meet a stranger” OR tend to shy away from new people or things?
- Adaptability: Can the child adjust to changes in routines or plans easily or does he or she resist transitions?
- Intensity: Does he or she react strongly to situations, either positive or negative, OR does he or she react calmly and quietly?
- Mood: Does the child often express a negative outlook OR is he or she generally a positive person? Does his or her mood shift frequently OR is he or she usually even-tempered?s
- Persistence and attention span: Does the child give up as soon as a problem arises with a task OR does he or she keep on trying? Can he or she stick with an activity a long time OR does his or her mind tend to wander?
- Distractibility: Is the child easily distracted from what he or she is doing OR can he or she shut out external distractions and stay with the current activity?
- Sensory threshold: Is he or she bothered by external stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or food textures OR does he or she tend to ignore them?
These traits combine to form three basic types of temperaments. Approximately 65 percent of all children fit one of three patterns. Forty percent of children are generally regarded as “easy or flexible,” 10 percent are regarded as “difficult, active, or feisty,” and the final 15 percent are regarded as “slow to warm up or cautious.” The other 35 percent of children are a combination of these patterns. By understanding these patterns, parents can tailor their parenting approach in such areas as expectations, encouragement, and discipline to suit the child’s unique needs.
- Easy or flexible children are generally calm, happy, regular in sleeping and eating habits, adaptable, and not easily upset. Because of their easy style, parents need to set aside special times to talk about the child’s frustrations and hurts because he or she won’t demand or ask for it. This intentional communication will be necessary to strengthen your relationship and find out what your child is thinking and feeling.
- Difficult, active, or feisty children are often fussy, irregular in feeding and sleeping habits, fearful of new people and situations, easily upset by noise and commotion, high strung, and intense in their reactions. Providing areas for vigorous play to work off stored up energy and frustrations with some freedom of choice allow these children to be successful. Preparing these children for activity changes and using redirection will help these children transition (move or change) from one place to another.
- Slow to warm up or cautious children are relatively inactive and fussy, tend to withdraw or to react negatively to new situations, but their reactions gradually become more positive with continuous exposure. Sticking to a routine and your word, along with allowing ample time to establish relationships in new situations, are necessary to allow independence to unfold.
Most children have some level of intensity on several temperament traits, but one dimension will usually dominate. Refrain from using negative labels such as “cry baby,” “worrywart,” or “lazy.” The child’s abilities to develop and behave in acceptable ways are greatly determined by the adults in their lives trying to identify, recognize, and respond to his or her unique temperament. By doing so, the adults can alter or adjust their parenting methods to be a positive guide in their child’s natural way of responding to the world.
Parenting with Temperament in Focus
Parents also need to get a clear picture of their own temperament traits and pinpoint areas in which conflicts with their child arise due to temperament clashing. When there is temperament friction between parent and child, it is more reasonable to expect that the parent will make the first move to adapt. When a parent or caregiver understands the child’s temperament, he or she can organize the environment so that “goodness of fit” happens.
Here are principles to keep in mind as you strive to achieve this fit.
- Be aware of your child’s temperament and respect his or her uniqueness without comparing him or her to others or trying to change your child’s basic temperament. Be aware of your own temperament and adjust your natural responses when they clash with your child’s responses.
- Communicate. Explain decisions and motives. Listen to the child’s points of view and encourage teamwork on generating solutions.
- Set limits to help your child develop self-control. Respect opinions but remain firm on important limits.
- Be a good role model because children learn by imitation.
- Enjoy the dance.
This match between the child’s temperament and the demands or expectations of his or her environment (family, school, childcare setting) greatly improves relationships. Parents who are tuned into their child’s temperament and who can recognize their child’s strengths will find life more enjoyable. It will be a dynamic dance that will last a lifetime.
Goodman, R., & Gurian, A. (1999). Parenting styles/children’s temperaments: The match. New York University Child Study Center, AboutOurKids.org.
Graham, J. (2001). Temperament. University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Bulletin #4358.
Olson, M. (1996, Spring/Summer). Ten keys to unlocking temperament. Arizona State University Research Magazine.
Turecki, S. (1985). The difficult child. New York: Bantam Books.
Ron Huxley’s Remembers: Many years ago, when I first started teaching parenting education, I used a video by Stella Chess called “Flexible, Fearful and Feisty”. It was one of my favorite parenting tools. Parents loved it as well because it was an easy way to understand how one child could be so different from the other. I loved it because it separated pathological from normal behavior. At times parents fought with children who were just like them and at other times needed the balance that another temperament brought to the relationship. Tell us how you have dealt with temperamental differences in your family?
“American mothers are multitasking for 48.3 hours each week, compared to 38.9 hours working fathers put in, researchers from Michigan State University reported in American Sociological Review. They add that women find multitasking a negative experience, compared to fathers who say that for them the experience is a positive one.”
Ron Huxley’s Reaction: A recent journal article reported that mom’s multitask more than dad’s and they find the entire experience more negative than do fathers. This could be because they do most of the work around the home, as the article implies, than do dad’s. I wouldn’t like it either if I was the one doing all the work either! The article gives some very simple advice: Dad’s need to help out more. Unfortunately, like most simple advice there is more complexity behind it, like social rewards or more flexible work hours. In our home it was do whatever you could whenever you could and this way, no one got resentful that the other parent wasn’t doing their part.
How do you divide the parenting/household responsibilities? Are dad’s really just slackers when it comes to parenting duties? Share your thoughts by clicking the reply button.
I just learned about Dr. Aletha Solter‘s book and principles of Aware Parenting. I don’t know why it took so long to become acquainted with her work but her ideas are extremely close to my own thoughts on parenting. Her ideas are timely in this day of discovery about the healing aspects of mindfulness. Read through her 10 Principles and see where they resonate with your own parenting thoughts. Source: http://www.awareparenting.com/english.htm “1. Aware parents fill their children’s needs for physical contact (holding, cuddling, etc.). They do not worry about “spoiling” their children.
2. Aware parents accept the entire range of emotions and listen non-judgmentally to children’s expressions of feelings. They realize that they cannot prevent all sadness, anger, or frustration, and they do not attempt to stop children from releasing painful feelings through crying or raging.
3. Aware parents offer age-appropriate stimulation, and trust children to learn at their own rate and in their own way. They do not try to hurry children on to new stages of development.
4. Aware parents offer encouragement for learning new skills, but do not judge children’s performance with either criticism or evaluative praise.
5. Aware parents spend time each day giving full attention to their children. During this special, quality time, they observe, listen, respond, and join in their children’s play (if invited to do so), but they do not direct the children’s activities.
6. Aware parents protect children from danger, but they do not attempt to prevent all of their children’s mistakes, problems, or conflicts.
7. Aware parents encourage children to be autonomous problem-solvers and help only when needed. They do not solve their children’s problems for them.
8. Aware parents set reasonable boundaries and limits, gently guide children towards acceptable behavior, and consider everyone’s needs when solving conflicts. They do not control children with bribes, rewards, threats, or punishments of any kind.
9. Aware parents take care of themselves and are honest about their own needs and feelings. They do not sacrifice themselves to the point of becoming resentful.
10. Aware parents strive to be aware of the ways in which their own childhood pain interferes with their ability to be good parents, and they make conscious efforts to avoid passing on their own hurts to their children.
Aware Parenting is based on the work of Dr. Aletha Solter. For more information, please see Dr. Aletha Solter’s books, The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, and Raising Drug-Free Kids“
The most difficult problem I have when working with children, in my private practice, is the parents. When parents cannot agree on how to raise a child, and specifically, how to discipline, it is almost impossible to reach a solution. By the time parents reach me, the problem has been going on for such a long time that neither parent will budge from there position. It is only when one of the parents will give up some of the battle ground that I can help the parents help the child.This is even truer in divorced or separated families. In these situations, the parents are more interested in returning cannon fire at the “other parent” for past wrongs then they are interested in co-parenting their children althoughthat is what they claim motivates their actions. They will fight with their child’s name as their battle cry, making their warring appear righteous and their violence just, and sacrificing the needs of their children for stable, cooperative parents.But, I have few battle tactics myself. In those moments when parents cannot agree, I offer parents some difficult truces:The first truce is called “Squatters Rights.” The first parent on the scene gets to do thediscipline, no interference allowed. This works well for parents that cannot reach a compromise or with children who are masters at the “divide and conquer” routine. In this routine, the child, who may or may not have been the original transgressor, walks away from the crime, leaving warring parents in his or her wake. Why? Because the child has learned the art, dark and ugly as it is, of how to manipulate parents into a confrontation with one another to get out of trouble. Only parents who have recognized this routine with their children can use this truce effectively.The second truce is called “Tag Team Discipline.” The other parent can only take over the discipline when the first parent signals for help. Just like tag team wrestling, a tagor signal must be made before the other parent can enter the ring. At that point it isthe other parents turn to discipline and no interference is allowed from the first parentwho left the ring. Unless a second tag is made. This truce will only work when parents recognize a need to cooperate more but can’t break out of old warring patterns with each other.The third truce is called “Two Heads are Better Than One.” In this situation, no decisionis made unless both parents have consulted one another and agree completely on the decision.If they do not agree, no decision is made. This will put an immediate stop to children whomplay one parent against the other. It will work only for parents who are motivated to workingcooperatively together but are having difficulty knowing how to get started.The fourth truce is called “Getting Off the See-Saw.” You have seen a see-saw at a child’s play ground. It has a long board, usually with two seats at either end, resting of a bar orbarrel so that the board can rock up and down. Parents who war with one another are like twochildren playing on a see-saw. Push down on one side of the see-saw and the other side goes up. Push back on the other side and the first side goes up. Parents who disagree are engaging in a rocking motion that is self-perpetuating. It becomes very difficult to stop playing on the see-saw, especially after years of practice. This truce is only for parents who sincerely want to stop the see-saw rhythm in their relationship but cannot get the other person to stop pushing on the see-saw. It requires that the parent, who wants to get off, to moving toward the middle of the see-saw and away from their extreme position. If your husband is too lax with the kids, act more permissive and he will be more authoritarian. If he is too harsh, set some firm limits and he may become softer. The other parent can’t help put push on their end, even if it is not the one they originally choose. Eventually they will be forced to step off and stand on equal ground.The fifth truce is called the “Ben Franklin’s Problem Solving Method.” It has been said that whenever Ben Franklin, an American Patriarch and successful business man, could not make a decision, he would take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. He would then put all the reasons for the decision on one side of the line and all the reasons against it on the other. The side with the most reasons would win. The success of this method is its reliance on logic and facts versus emotions – a dangerous area for warring parents. It will only work for parents who have had some experience cooperating with one another but get stuck on a particularly emotional issues.The six truce is called the “Coin Toss.” Sometimes parents, even cooperative ones, cannot reach an agreement. Usually the best choice here is to decide to not make a choice. But when that isn’t possible I suggest that parents simply toss a coin. One parent calls it in the air and which ever side it lands on that parent gets the final say. Of course, I am usually joking with the parents when I suggest this truce, but if they want to use it, each parent has 50 percent chance of winning. I know for a fact that this is a higher percentage than most parents get in decision-making with each other. Humor is an important skill in parental negotiations. When parents take parenting too seriously, they lose perspective on what they are trying to accomplish and war erupts. Families today experience more stress than families of the past. This is why humor and a flexible attitude is crucial to cooperation. This truce will only work for parents whom generally cooperate with one another but get stuck from time to time.These six truces cover the full range of situations where parents can disagree about parenting. If they do not work, find a family therapist to help the negotiations. Otherwise, war will continue. As with real wars, innocent children are often victims of even the most righteous causes.
- Parenting Differences: Attract and Annoy! (parentingtoolbox.com)
- Changing Children’s Behavior: Take Some Measurements! (parentingtoolbox.com)
- Parenting Differences: Six Truces for Divorced Parents (parentingtoolbox.com)
Remember what attracted you to your mate when you first got married? Are those characteristics that originally attracted you to your partner the very things drive you crazy now? The old saying “opposites attract” may have a lot of truth when it comes to creating a balanced parenting relationship but it is also true that those styles of parenting can rips homes apart and be a source of constant parenting struggle.It is natural for people to want to fill in the gaps of their personality or find a compliment to their own skills and abilities. These different styles unconsciously “round out” their parenting roles. This is why one partner may be more aggressive, more organized, more emotional, or more controlled than the other partner and why together the two personalities seem, at least at first glance, to be a good “team.”Just as values are largely unconscious and tucked out of parents awareness, certain styles of parenting that were attractive early on in the parenting relationship are also largely unconscious. Parents may have fallen in love, not just with the other person, but with their ability to make firm decisions or feel passionate about something. Parents may have even fallen in love with characteristics they lacked or felt they never could adequately provide for a child.The ability of one parent to follow a budget or use common sense may impress another parent whose checkbook is always unbalanced or feels their finances and life are out of control. The other person creates a sense of balance in their life that translates to a feeling of balance of love and limits during child rearing. After a while, though, these attractive attributes can become annoying. The parenting partner, who provided a sense of stability early on in the relationship and could offer common sense when the baby cried all night long, is seen as boring, emotionally detached, and too rigid later on in the relationship.PARENTING PERSPECTIVESParenting changes how people perceive themselves. Setting limits on one’s checkbook is different than setting limits on a child. And nurturing oneself is very different from nurturing a totally depended, often demanding infant. This evolution from “partners in love” to “partners in parenting” creates a feeling of imbalance. Having a child forces the partners to merge two sets of cultures, parenting values, and beliefs. It also brings up positive and negative memories of a parent’s own childhood. Parents, who had abusive parents or whose partner had abusive parents, may fear their own children being abused. And parents who idealized their parents may feel incompetent when comparing their own parenting skills to their parental figures.Now, as parents, the positive attributes that attracted one parenting partner to another, reminds partners of negative traits in there own parents. The organizational skills they admired in their partner and in their own parents also remind them of the compulsive, rigid behavior of their parent. The spontaneity and attention given by one’s partner also reminds them of their parents smothering overprotection.DECISION, DECISIONSHaving children also force partners to make decisions they never had to be make before. It requires them to act cooperatively with one another on such things as who stays home with the child when he or she is sick; how to deal with a bad grade on a report card; or how to handle a child who has an emotional or behavioral disorder, all of which can result in parental disagreements, arguments, and resentments.Even the value that parenting partners must be, act, or react in the same manner can be disastrous to a balance of love and limits. Fortunately, these differences can become the groundwork for a fuller relationship if partners are willing to learn from one another rather than continue the vicious cycle of anger and resentment. This is possible only where both parents make an honest attempt at communication and cooperation. In addition, partners can learn from one another’s differences and incorporate the others strengths into their own parenting style.LEARNING FROM DIFFERENCESThe first step to learning from the other parenting figure is to accept that differences are acceptable, even necessary, in the parenting relationship. If one parent is to develop certain parenting characteristics they never received from their own parental figures, they must accept and allow the other person to demonstrates these qualities. Believing that the other parent has something valuable to offer the parenting relationship will create cooperation in the difficult task of raising a child rather than resentment.The second step is to learn new ways to parent from the example of the other parent. Getting out of the way and letting them “do their thing” will not produce growth in one’s own parenting skills. Letting the other person have their way is not synonymous with learning. This can become learned helplessness, which results in negative feelings toward oneself and the other partner. While one parent may never be quite as good at setting firm rules at bedtime, they can learn to do it more frequent and more consistently than they have in the past, simply by learning from the example of the other parent.The third step is to agree to disagree. Not every parenting decision will be made in total agreement. Nor should one person, regardless of how confident or aggressive they are in making decisions make every decision. Parenting partners can take turns on how to take care of night-time fears, with one parent singing and holding the child one week and the other parent scaring away the bedtime monsters with a flashlight, the next. Or they can compromise by finding a third, equally agreeable solution to getting their child to stay in bed. If an equally agreeable solution does not present itself, partners can always “agree to disagree” by waiting until a third solution does becomes possible. “Agreeing to disagree” is helpful when a discussion becomes “heated” and partners need to wait until both parties are feeling “cooler” and better able to see the other person’s viewpoint. This behavior is a powerful model to children. It demonstrates that parents can be different and disagree without engaging in a physical or verbal battle. It communicates to the children that “we are working it out.” And relationships can continue to be satisfying (or balanced) even when an issue is not yet settled.The fourth step is to recognize that the negative or uncooperative behavior seen in the other parent may be a reflection of a characteristic of their own personality of their past and not the other parenting partner after all. It may be a habit learned from parental figures in one’s own childhood about how to deal with a frustrating situation or cope with a problem. Take time to reflect on your own past and talk with the other partner about childhood experiences. Insight, not ignorance, will lead to intimacy.And the fifth step is to have a discussion on balancing parenting styles free of name-calling, blaming, or shaming one another. Don’t make the other parent feel bad by labeling them “stubborn,” talking about them in front of friends, or constantly pointing out their flaws. If this is too difficult to master, parenting partners will need to find help to deal with these destructive communication styles. While it is true that “opposites attract” it is also true that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
- Parenting Differences: Attract and Annoy! (parentingtoolbox.com)
- Changing Children’s Behavior: Take Some Measurements! (parentingtoolbox.com)
- Parenting Differences: Six Truces for Divorced Parents (parentingtoolbox.com)