Way, way back in 2004 (sniff, sniff), I became very close with one of the most amazing people ever, my friend Laura. Together, we had brand new babies, our very first, and were trying to figure out what the heck we were doing. And I am SO glad we had each other. During this time, we would take the babies to music class, to the park and on long walks in the strollers that inevitably involved getting coffee. Though Laura had a boy and I had a girl, something else was VERY different between these two cuties. Her son could happily sit in that stroller, nap if he needed and we would rarely hear a peep from him. On the other hand, was my precious cargo who, if the stroller stopped for even a mili-second, would enter into a screaming fit OR would be jarred awake… also leading to a screaming fit. In fact, many times when heading to the coffee shop, I would have to circle the block to keep my daughter happy while Laura would enter with her content son and order for us (I promise I gave her money… ahem…). Sure, perhaps you could attribute this to me having a different parenting style, but truly it was obvious our kids had different temperaments. In fact, once we had our second children, we especially realized this was true! With that in mind and knowing different personality types require different parenting strategies, Breezy Mama turned to Cindy H. Liu, Ph.D, Instructor in Psychiatry,
Harvard Medical School, to discuss the different temperaments of children and how to parent according to their personalities.
Why is it important to tailor your parenting to your child’s personality?
I think it’s important to know your parenting philosophy, your own personality and to make adjustments to your expectations as you start to recognize your child’s personality. In my clinical work, I’ve met parents who are very extroverted and who expect their children to be just as sociable. They get frustrated that their children do not want to engage with others as much as the rest of the family. This can take a toll on the parent-child relationship and parents may attribute this to the child having a “difficult” personality when in fact, they are merely different in the ways they engage in the world.
With this example, I help parents to realize that it is fine to encourage your child to be friendly to others…and at the very least, demonstrate good manners when interacting with others. Do try to adjust your own expectations and realize that they may not be the life of the party. What are the sorts of activities that they might find more fulfilling? As a parent, find a way to appreciate these interests and nurture them, even if it is completely different than what you are used to.
Can you explain the different temperaments?
There is actually a huge literature on infant temperament, and different researchers use different typologies, although all are quite similar. Because you can go on and on about the different temperaments and because they all overlap, I’m not going to list them.
In the earlier work, people relied on categories such as easy, difficult, or slow to warm up. I think that people still often use these terms, but this really captures more of how “easy” or “difficult” it is for parents when responding to their children’s behavior — thus these terms aren’t exactly accurate in considering the biological underpinnings of temperament and it also quite subjective. What may be easy for one parent may be hard for another.
I gravitate toward Jerome Kagan’s typology of low and high reactive children, with high reactive children showing more shyness and fearfulness to unfamiliar situations and low reactive children being more outgoing, spontaneous, or fearless. About 20% children are high reactive, 40% low reactive, and 40% somewhere in between.
As for what parents should keep in mind when parenting these different temperaments…This is an age old question within the field of child development because the research findings are mixed. Whereas some have found that it was best for parents of high reactive babies to set firm limits and not rush to sooth, others have found the opposite, that it was best for high reactive infants to have mothers who behaved more sensitively. Of course, some cultures don’t tailor their parenting to the particular temperament and in fact, the emphasis and interest on individual differences in infants may very well reflect Western and individualistic thinking. I don’t think there is one right or wrong way to respond.
Parents may want to help children find activities that capitalize on their unique temperaments, whether it be expression through art or through social activities. Parents may want to try and encourage children to go out of their comfort zone regardless of their temperament. Above all, my recommendation is that parents stick with their gut and respond in the way that fits with their own personal beliefs and their cultural expectations for children.
Anything else you’d like to share on temperaments?
I think it’s sometimes interesting for parents to understand how we, as researchers study temperament.
In our lab, we set up situations where we can observe infant temperament. We focus on infant activity, specifically, their motor activity and any vocalizations they make in response to novel toys or unfamiliar or unusual voices. High reactive children might startle or cry out in response when these items or sounds are presented to them, whereas low reactive children are more willing to approach toys or are simply entertained by the unusual situation.
Here is an interview what I did which describes the procedure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rg2l7PjjiUc