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In my previous blog post, I gave an overview of understanding your child’s temperament. To refresh, your child’s temperament is a combination of their unique traits and characteristics that inform how they interact with the world. These traits emerge early in life, are informed by genetics, and form the building blocks of their later personality (you can read more about some of these traits here). Learning about your child’s temperament as they grow and learn can be exciting, but it can also present challenges to parents, particularly if they have different children with very different temperaments! The degree to which a parent’s behaviour and parenting style match their own individual child’s temperament has been referred to by psychologists as “goodness of fit.” We know from past research that children tend to be happier, more social, and show better developmental outcomes when there is high “goodness of fit” between the parent and the child.
This might seem like an obvious one, but a lot of conflict between parents and children comes from the fact that parents often have pre-existing expectations about what parenting is going to look like. Maybe you always dreamed of coaching your child in sports and athletics, but they show absolutely no interest in playing catch. Or maybe you imagined being able to share your love of literature with your growing child, but they can’t sit still while you attempt to read them chapters from Little House on the Prairie. When you have a child that does not match what you hoped, wanted, or expected, it can seem like a rejection of your own ideals. The first inclination might be to just try harder, but the best approach is to meet your child where they are rather than trying to pull them toward you.
For example, you might be naturally inclined to spend as much time as possible outdoors and love adventure, but your child gets overwhelmed by crowds or new experiences and would prefer to play inside. Rather than trying to force them to share your love of roller coasters or outdoor sports, find ways to spend quality time with your child in a way that they might enjoy. Once you meet your child where they are by spending time doing things they already enjoy doing, you can try to slowly broaden their interests by taking both your interests and their temperament into account. For example, in addition to playing with your child indoors, perhaps you can share your love of the outdoors by going to a quiet park or a conservatory that allows for time spent in nature but is not overwhelming to your child.
If you have more than one child, you may have noticed that the discipline strategies that worked for one child are ineffective for another child. This is likely the case because your children have different temperaments. We know from past research that some temperaments are more sensitive to punishment while others are more sensitive to reward. A child who is sensitive to punishment responds well to gentle discipline strategies, like time-out and explanations of why their behaviour is not appropriate. Children who are insensitive to punishment often have to be told over and over again not to run in the house or throw toys and no amount of time outs or removal of screen time seems to have any lasting effect. This might seem like a lost cause, but research also indicates that the same children who are insensitive to punishment are more sensitive to reward. This means that these children are more likely to change their behaviour in response to reward. You might already know if your child is more sensitive to punishment or reward, but if you’re not sure, research suggests that children who are more reserved, shy, or fearful tend to be more sensitive to punishment, while children who are more active, impulsive, and prone to frustration are more likely to be sensitive to reward.
Rewards can take the form of reward charts, like earning extra screen time or getting a new toy once they perform the expected behaviour a certain number of times. These types of rewards can be useful for specific, time-limited improvements in behaviour, like toilet training or staying in bed after bedtime. However, this can also backfire if rewards are used for multiple behaviours as it creates the message that all good behaviour (or absence of bad behaviour) should be rewarded. Therefore, one of the most effective rewards for good behaviour is verbal praise. Children intrinsically want attention and praise, and respond well toward it, particularly if the praise is genuine. This desire for attention can also contribute to why punishments are less effective for some children. The attention children receive for misbehaving can in itself be considered a “reward” and may outweigh the actual consequences of their behaviour for children who are insensitive to punishment. This does not suggest that you should give up disciplining misbehaviour. Rather, it suggests that you may need to be more thoughtful about how the punishments and rewards are being received by your child. Consequences for misbehaviour should be clear and consistent, but for children who do not respond as well to punishment, it is also important that you are rewarding and emphasizing good behaviour and not inadvertently rewarding misbehaviour by escalating the attention your child receives when they misbehave.
For example, if you are trying to stop your child from running off when you go to the store, you can calmly explain your expectations for their behaviour before you enter the store. Research also suggests that children respond better when you emphasize the behaviour you want (“I need you to stay by my side so that I can always reach you”) rather than what you don’t want (“Remember: no running off”). If your child behaves well during the visit, you would reward them with verbal praise: “You did so well staying by my side today. Thank you so much for helping me grocery shop.” If this was the primary behaviour you are trying to correct, you could also give them a small reward, such as 30 minutes of additional screen time when they get home or going out for a scoop of ice cream. However, If your child were to misbehave by running off, you would calmly leave the store and let them know that they cannot run off in the store because you do not want to lose them. Once you were home, you would then calmly enforce the consequences that you had decided on and communicated to your child beforehand, such as a time out. Rewards and consequences also work best when they are immediate, so rewards like having a treat after dinner (which may be hours away) or punishments like no screen time during the weekend are less likely to be effective in changing the behaviour.
The last thing to keep in mind is that your child’s individual temperament is neither better nor worse than any other child’s. In some of the earlier research done on child temperament in the 1970s, psychologists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess identified three “profiles” of temperament traits, which were later labelled as “difficult,” “easy,” and “slow-to-warm up.” Newer research has evolved past these profiles, and has shown that children who would have previously been considered “difficult” can actually show better developmental outcomes than “easy” children as long as there is goodness of fit between the parent and child. However, the distinction between “difficult” and “easy” children has persisted, resulting in the misguided belief that some temperament traits are “bad” while others are “good.” These beliefs can be perpetuated by our own preferences or cultural values. For example, most modern Western industrialized cultures tend to prefer traits associated with extraversion, while some cultures in Asia tend to value temperament traits associated with introversion. However, both human and animal research suggests that all temperament traits have unique costs and benefits – or pros and cons – associated with them. Differences in temperament traits across individuals in a society is adaptive and provides an evolutionary advantage. It also makes life much more interesting.
If you find yourself frustrated or unable to connect to your own child’s temperament, try to think about what some of the benefits of their temperament might be and how you can try to bring out the best in your child. For example, a child who is highly active might make it hard for you to keep them entertained indoors during a global pandemic, but it might also ensure that they live a more healthy, active lifestyle as they grow up.
Dr. Rochelle Hentges has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and conducts research at the University of Calgary on how children develop within different family contexts.