James spills his milk and whispers to himself: "Uh oh, better
get a paper towel." His sister, Jill, spills her milk and begins to
wail as if her life has been ruined by the tragic puddle of
How can it be that two siblings react to the same situation in
such different ways? It's called temperament, and most parents and
professionals agree babies are born with specific styles of
behavior. Some are easy going; others more challenging.
Temperament-how a child reacts when she spills her drink, not
what caused her to spill it or the act itself-is affected by many
traits, including her level of sensitivity, ability to manage
emotions, persistence, adaptability, intensity and mood.
The key to dealing with each child's behavior is understanding
his or her temperament and how to respond accordingly. This can be
relatively easy when parent and child have similar temperaments. A
stubborn father may be more empathetic when his son refuses to eat
vegetables, for example.
When parents and children have temperamental styles that clash,
however, things can be more difficult. Parents can become anxious
when a child doesn't do what they expect.
The key is being able to predict how a child will respond vs.
how you think he should respond and knowing how to help him through
Many children, for example, have difficulty with transitions,
whether it's a new food, a change in schedule or a new face. One
way of dealing with a slow-to-adapt child is to anticipate the
difficulty before it happens. If you suspect, for example, that
your little guy might feel overwhelmed at a birthday party, rather
than getting annoyed when he clings to you, talk to him beforehand
about what the party might be like, who will be there, what kinds
of things will happen. When you arrive, gently lead him into the
crowd and try to engage him in an activity. You may need to stick
around longer than you would like before he feels settled, but with
your help, he is likely to eventually make a smooth transition.
And, although it's tempting, resist the urge to label your
child. Children can feel they have to live up to labels such as
quiet, defiant or oversensitive. Nor is it wise to attempt to
change your child's temperament. Instead, accept it as your child's
unique way of responding to the world.
And take comfort in knowing that the temperamental traits you
find irritating now may serve your child well in the long run. A
hard-to-soothe infant, for example, may grow into a child who is
very good at self-soothing in times of stress.
Responding in ways that match your child's temperament is a
process. It takes time, patience and lots of guesswork. But it is
critical to a child's social and emotional development. The more
closely you match your parenting style to your child's temperament,
the better for both of you. Your child will feel more secure and
you'll live with less stress and more harmony.
Rachel Rashkin is author of I'm Getting Better, a story for
children entering psychotherapy, and founder of
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