Parenting: Some parent/child conflicts boil down to personality

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.”

The parents

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.”

Understanding Your Child’s Temperament

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.

Temperament Traits

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?

Temperament Types

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.

References

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?