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 milk.
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 it.
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 www.helpingkidsheal.com.