One very important parenting skill is understanding your child’s temperament. Knowing your child’s unique behavioral style as in the way he/she experiences and reacts to the world helps the parent-child bond flourish.
Sometimes, your child’s and your temperament are similar, while not uncommonly it can be very different.
I have been lucky, in that sense, my son’s temperament type matches mine. We both enjoy solitary activities and not too much interaction with the outside world. Thus, we have always got along well. For me, motherhood has been a breeze, despite my mental health struggles.
Furthermore, it is vital as a parent to understand that every child is different, notwithstanding if they are siblings or even twins. Identical twins though may have very similar temperaments.
Comprehending this critical information about your child’s temperament will help interpret your child’s behavior and respond to him/her appropriately. This parental sensitivity, in turn, shapes how a child perceives him/herself and the world around him/her.
Parental misattunement can lead to serious mental health issues. A child who grows up feeling misunderstood or perceives him/herself as difficult/ not good enough. This eventually, leads to the development of a negative self-concept – something does not feel okay within his/her psyche.
Three Identical Strangers – Not Fitting In
Recently, I watched the documentary, Three Identical Strangers a tragic tale of triplets, Edward (Eddy) Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran separated at birth. All 3 struggled with mental illness when growing up. Subsequently, one of them, Eddy committed suicide during a severe episode of manic depression.
The story raised one perturbing question. Why despite their identical looks, similar ways of talking, common ideas, and mental health struggles due to their separation, only Eddie succumbed to the compulsion of his mental illness?
Subtly, this was briefly addressed during the show —that parenting styles do make a difference.
Elliot, Eddy’s father, and Eddy were very different people. His dad was a strict disciplinarian, while Eddy was more of the artsy, kind, he wasn’t into sports.
Eddy said, he always sort of didn’t feel like he fit in with his family. Like he wasn’t in the right place.
It was not that Eddy’s father was a bad father. As a parent, Elliot did what he thought would be best for his son. The problem was that his own temperament was a stark contrast to Eddy’s. This mismatch or ‘poorness of fit’ between a child’s temperament and parental expectations, had very tragic consequences.
The lesson one can learn is that our children are not carbon copies of us and it is wrong to force them to fit into our worldview of life.
What is Temperament?
Temperament is the constellation of inborn traits, a combination of psychobiological features present from birth. These features could be due to a combination of genetic and hormonal influences.
Two crucial factors that can affect a child’s temperament:
1) Maternal stress during pregnancy
2) Prenatal alcohol and drug exposure. leading to fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD)
Nonetheless, a temperamental bias can originate in at least five different biological processes: an inherited neurobiological profile, season of conception, maternal stress or illness during pregnancy, extreme prematurity, or events during the opening months of life that alter the growth of the still-immature brain.
If fortuitously a person’s temperamental characteristics match his environment (both familially and culturally) life can be smooth sailing. If not it could lead to adjustment/mental health issues particularly if the parents/caregivers are clueless, lazy, or abusive.
Temperament and Personality
Temperament is the road map for our personality. You are born with a temperamental bias, your experiences will determine how that bias turns out.
However, temperamental differences can affect a caregiver’s ability to relate to a child on an emotional level. This in turn affects personality development. The bi-directional interaction that occurs between caregiver and child eventually wire a child’s brain which in turn forms the basis of his personality.
Temperament is innate, a genetic construct while personality is epigenetic – the interaction between genetic factors and environmental.
For optimal personality development parental sensitivity/responsiveness has to be attuned to a child’s specific states (attachment needs) and levels of emotional arousal (temperament) and be appropriate to the child’s developmental stage.
Moreover, temperament continues into adulthood, and later studies have shown that these characteristics continue to influence behavior and adjustment throughout one’s life-span
Unfortunately, most parenting is a hit and miss, most often you relate to your child how your parents related to you. Besides, what may be a good enough parenting response that appeases one child may totally upset another child.
Studies On Temperament
Thomas and Chess Study
In the late 1950s, child psychiatrists, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess did extensive research on the subject of temperament or ‘attributes’ of infants in the first 2 years of their life.
They conceptualized that temperament can be characterized across 9 dimensions:
1) Activity Level – Energy level and amount of movement.
2) Regularity/Rhythmicity – Natural patterns and schedules for biological functions (sleeping, elimination, eating).
3) Approach/Withdrawal/First Reactions – Reaction to new people and situations.
4) Adaptability – Ability to adjust to changes.
5) Sensory Threshold/Sensitivity – Reaction to sensory stimuli. (ex. texture, touch, brightness, volume, taste, aroma)
6) Intensity of Reaction – Emotional response to events.
7) Mood – Typical emotional outlook.
8) Distractibility – Ability to focus.
9) Attention Span/Persistence – Ability to stay with an activity.
These were broadly identified into 3 categories of children:
1) The Difficult Child (Spirited)
2) The Easy Child (Adaptable)
3) The Slow to Warm Up or Shy Child (Withdrawn)
Another important study was done by Havard psychologist Jerome Kagan. He hypothesized that inborn temperament stays with us through our lives. Kagan primarily focused on children’s fear and apprehension. He defined two main types of temperament:
1) High-reactive infants or Inhibited – shy, timid, and fearful
2) Low reactive infants or Uninhibited – bold, sociable, and outgoing behaviors
According to him, a shy adult is more likely to have been high-reactive (fearful) in infancy and childhood than their bold and sociable counterparts, who were most likely low-reactive.
Goodness of Fit
One of the important concepts developed by Thomas and Chess was the term ‘goodness of fit‘. It means that the demands and expectations of people relating to the child are compatible with the child’s temperament and do not increase or create conflict/challenge for the child.
Plainly speaking, goodness of fit explains the interactional synchrony that occurs between child and caregiver.
A good fit leads to a higher probability of healthy relationships and healthy development overall.
While a poor fit places children at risk for developing relational, behavioral, and/ or emotional problems.
Nonetheless, sensitive and effective parenting requires parents to adapt their expectations to provide a good fit for their child’s temperament. Unfortunately, in too many cases the fit is not there. This could be due to a variety of reasons, including:
1) Temperament of the child
2) Temperament of the parent
3) Attachment issues
4) Mental illness of a parent and/or child
6) Poor environmental conditions (such as poverty)
7) Biological issues of child and/or parent
Effective Parenting – Learning To Be A Good Fit
Parenting is a skill that one needs to hone through awareness, patience, and practice. Moreso, you have to make the adjustments – let go of preconceived notions, your own history, and embedded expectations of how your child should be or act.
With mindfulness, you can learn to effectively modulate their temperamental outbursts while making accommodations for their quirks. Intimately knowing your child’s temperament provides you a reliable map of your child’s future behavior, particularly in difficult situations.
Moreover, when you understand your child’s temperament you can look at the whole picture. Rather than trying to change him/her – try to understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Use this wisdom to encourage the positive while modulating the negative.
Pay attention and respond with empathy and love.
Navigating Your Child’s Temperament
However, do remember, what you mirror to your child will be absorbed by him/her. The phrase, like father, like son, is true not because character/personality is genetic. But because caregivers are neuroplastic magicians. They can change their child’s brain by just modeling good behaviors. What a child sees and feels so he eventually becomes.
At the end of the documentary, the key researcher states ‘I think nurture can overcome nearly everything’.
Yes, I too believe parents exert a huge influence on how their children turn out. It is up to us to nurture our child’s temperamental uniqueness for the best possible outcome.