“I don’t want to, I can’t, I don’t like it, leave me alone.” Ever had a child whose predominant response to everything new (people, school, new activities) seems negative? Is it shyness? Why would one child have mostly negative responses and others take everything in stride, feel good about himself and be easy to live with? Why are some children “easy” and others “difficult”? Why is one child obnoxious or obstreperous while others are mellow? Who has the easy smile and who is always more guarded or cautious? Can the same parents produce such opposite types of child? Do we do badly with some of our kids and a great job with others, or are they just “born that way”?
Children differ from each other because each child has his or her own temperament, or behavioral style: the how of behavior, rather than the what or why. Look at how, not why, your child expresses displeasure and frustration when he doesn’t immediately get what he wants. Pouting, complaining or whining; screaming, hitting and kicking; or accepting your decision. Temperament influences how children behave toward individuals and objects in their environments and, in turn, how we respond to them. How easy or difficult it is to raise a child depends on how we as parents respond to expressions of these inborn differences.
Infant behavior almost purely expresses temperament. Some infants are mild and joyful, while others are irritable and colicky. Easy babies are so pleasant to care for they receive (and give back) loads of affection and attention, but the fussy child may scream and kick or seem anxious when given attention. Over months he or she may seem less receptive to the caregiver and may actually receive less nurturance and affection.
Each of the nine temperamental traits (see below) varies on a normal range or scale of reactivity. They are present at birth, and are at least partly hereditary. Extremes in any one area are not necessarily abnormal.
Certain blends of temperamental traits stand out (not all children fit one of these profiles). The “easy” child is more predictable, and harder to over stimulate. He adapts readily to change, and has a mild or moderately intense, mostly positive, mood. At least 40% of children are born “easy.” Thank goodness!
The “difficult” child lies at the opposite end of the temperamental spectrum. Irregularity, withdrawal from new situations or people, resistance to changes, and expressions of intense, often negative, emotion make this sort of child a challenge. Frustration easily brings on tantrum. Crying bouts are relatively frequent and loud; laughter is also loud. At least 10% of children under the age of six can be classified as difficult.
The “slow to warm up” child (about 15%) usually has negative or withdrawal responses of mild intensity to new stimuli; given the opportunity to experience each new situation gradually and without pressure, he finally shows quietly positive interest and involvement.
Temperamental characteristics can be very positive in some situations and challenging in others. Temperament may make certain children in certain environments more likely to have behavior or emotional problems. We as parents have to consciously match some of our demands or expectations to the child’s temperament to avoid problem behaviors.
If a child is slow to warm up, she should not be reprimanded for being hesitant toward a stranger. If a child needs more time to adapt, don’t punish for not obeying completely. Give credit if her response is better than last time (moving in the right direction). An intense child shouldn’t be criticized for being loud when upset, just as she isn’t punished for being loud when she is happy. Trying to still the highly active child often has the opposite from the desired result. Look especially at times when everything is going smoothly and you both feel good.Allow for the high-maintenance child’s parenting needs.
Certain normal temperamental traits are similar to those regarded as behavioral symptoms of ADHD. High activity level, distractibility, poor (or slow) adaptability, and lack of persistence are parts of normal personality characteristics, but hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention are facets of ADHD. It is very likely that many difficult children are being diagnosed with ADHD when in fact they do not have a neurobehavioral disability.
Recognize and accept the way the child is. Your true feelings toward the child have a lot to do with parts of him or her you can’t control. If your child is difficult, you can feel guilty that you are frustrated rather than fulfilled as a parent, that you are stressed rather than energized, and that you sometimes wish that your child were different. Most parents learn to help mediate their child’s special characteristics through trial and error, but when conflict continues to increase rather than resolve, or appears unexpectedly, assistance may be welcome.
1. Activity level, the daily proportion of active/inactive periods, as well as mobility during bathing, playing, dressing, sleeping, or walking, from infancy.
2. Regularity is a physiological basis for the predictability of patterns of sleep, waking, appetite, and bowels.
3. Approach/withdrawal characterizes the initial response to something new, (e.g., a new food, toy, or person). Usually withdrawal has negative (shy, unfriendly, or fearful) overtones, while approach feels more positive (bold or outgoing).
4. Adaptability describes the longer lasting part of responsiveness to new or changed situations. The more flexible the child, the easier it is to turn that initial response in a desired direction. (How does he respond to try it?) Can you turn the negative energy into a positive direction?
5. Sensitivity refers to how easily the child is over stimulated or bothered.
6. Intensity of reaction describes the overall energy level of the child’s reactions. How loud is he when happy or upset?
7. Mood describes the child’s basic disposition: happy/joyful or serious/reserved.
8. Distractibility affects a child’s ability to pay attention.
9. Attention span and persistence indicate how long the child stays with an activity once involved (positive persistence). How determined or stubborn or whiny is he when not getting his way (negative persistence)?