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Oregon Family Magazine

Respecting Temperarments While Leaving Room for Personality

05/01/2013 11:05AM ● By Sandy Kauten

By Shirley Kawa-Jump and Dr. David Johnson

Sheri White’s 4½-year-old daughter, Becca, is on the high end of the sensitivity spectrum and is also the more expressive of her two children in their Frederick, MD home. She takes things very seriously, and has a tendency toward perfectionism. When things go wrong, Becca becomes so frustrated, she’ll often cry or scream.

Her mother says learning to understand Becca’s temperament and then find ways to help her adapt to the roadblocks in life is an ongoing process. “It took me the longest time to get her to ask for help when she needed it instead of screaming or crying and running up to her room. For instance, her clothes. If something needed to be taken off or turned right-side-out, she would try to do it. Even though I’d see her struggling, she would angrily refuse my offers of help, and it would usually end up in a meltdown,” Sheri says. “It took a lot of hugs and patience to teach her that my job was to help her and that everybody needs help sometimes. Now, she will bring me inside-out clothes and actually say “Could you please help me?” without any stress.”

Although Becca still gets frustrated when a drawing isn’t as perfect as she’d like it, Sheri says most days are easier since she learned the best ways to cope with Becca’s temperament. She rejected advice that spanking Becca was the best solution; instead, she looked at her daughter and worked within the parameter’s of Becca’s natural tendencies. “I knew that once she became more verbal the tantrums would cease. Instead I would just hold her tightly until she calmed down. As her vocabulary has grown, the tantrums are extremely rare.”

Experts say trying to change a child’s temperament is impossible. Children are born with a specific tendency to act or react to people or situations in their lives. “Temperament” is this natural way of responding and includes aspects of one’s energy level, intensity of emotions, adaptability to new situations, persistence to meet challenges, sensitivity (to noise, emotions, tastes, textures) ease of being distracted, need for regularity (in regards to eating, sleeping, bowel movements) and disposition (happy versus serious). An infant’s temperament can often be detected at birth by gauging the child’s activity level, sociability, reactions to stimulating situations and behavioral inhibition or exhibition.

Personality, which is often confused with temperament, is different. Temperament forms the basis, while personality is the beliefs, attitudes, values, motives, and behavior patterns developed over a lifetime. Personality is influenced by temperament, but only personality can change as life experiences do. For instance, a child who has a tendency toward shyness can learn to be more outgoing if put in a positive, encouraging environment. But a child who is highly adaptable in temperament will remain so as an adult; maintaining a sort of roll-with-the-punches kind of attitude.

Nature and nurture together help to determine a child’s personality. Since a child is born with temperament, it is important to identify strengths and coach the child to assist them in developing a healthy personality. Respecting temperaments while focusing on the “outcome” of a healthy personality will assist parents in modifying their coaching style.

Trina Lambert, an Englewood, CO mother of ten-year-old fraternal twins, says her son and daughter have very different temperaments and personalities. Her son tends to be the more spirited and reactive of the two, which can make emotional reactions stronger. She says she and her husband have learned that their children don’t mirror parental traits. “For an example, both of us are thinkers, while our daughter is a feeler. We have to slow down and listen to her feelings, instead of just resolving things in a logical fashion. On the other hand, our son is an extrovert and his noise level can drive the rest of us introverts batty. We try to give him appropriate outlets for his talkativeness and noise-making.”

Cheryl Perry Confer MS, LMHC, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with Parkview Behavioral Employee Assistance in Fort Wayne, IN says this is a good policy for parents to adopt. “[Parents should] affirm a child’s strengths and encourage them to stretch in areas of weakness; provide boundaries that provide safety yet encourages independence and appropriate risk taking. Finally, giving children responsibilities that are age appropriate is where they develop a sense of competence and therefore a healthy self concept.”

Children are perceived as having a “difficult” temperament when they are out of sync with their parent, caretaker, or teacher. For example a child with high energy and intensity who is easily frustrated with change will create stress in a parent or teacher who perhaps at that moment is tired, frustrated, or who has low tolerance for intensity. By recognizing the things that trigger the child’s frustration and providing ways to deal with those annoyances, parents can create a less stressful environment for everyone. If a child is intense and active, plan exercise into the day. If a child is rigid about scheduling, try not skip meals or step too far away from the routine. For a child who is very persistent, plan time into the day to finish a big project so that he can end the day with a sense of accomplishment.

Dr. Erin Rivera PhD, CNS, APRN, BC, a nursing clinical specialist in Fort Wayne says one of the best coping mechanisms is simply to pause and take an objective look at what’s going on. “Remember to step back from the situation when emotions are high and look at the needs of the child and their expectations. Are their expectations realistic? Am I able to key into the child’s underlying emotions or needs? Is the child tired, fatigued, or stressed? Maybe what I am asking of the child is unrealistic. Maybe my “timing” needs to be different. Perhaps I need to come at it from a different angle.”

 Dr. Rivera adds that parents can cope with different temperaments in two ways. She says they can either help their child capitalize on the strengths of his temperament and channel those tendencies into ways that help him maintain his life better, or simply allow the child to be a bit “different and out of sync.” Either way, recognizing that a child’s temperament is there to stay and understanding both the child’s and your own natural triggers for frustration can make it easier for everyone to work and live together.

Trina says she tries to pay attention to the differences between her and her husband and her two children. For her son, she has set up a kicking bag so he can tae-kwon-do out some of his frustrations and energy. For her daughter, the polar opposite twin, taking a class in tae-kwon-do has increased her confidence in new situations, although she has a more quiet and persistent temperament. “Sometimes our kids need very different responses than we needed as kids—and as adults. I think our children respond so much better when they see that we are trying to work with their natural styles.”