Written by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.

Nurturing Your Child’s Nature


Understanding the complexities of temperament

  Development is a complex process that is influenced by genetics (nature) and experience (nurture). Each baby comes into the world with a “blueprint” evidenced by his unique appearance and behavior. It is the parent’s job to understand Baby and recognize what can be “shaped” and what is hard-wired.   Temperament or one’s personality traits may include intensity, sensitivity, persistence, adaptability, and perceptiveness. Temperament impacts emotional functioning—including “triggers” for a meltdown. This profile also influences learning styles and social behavior such as making friends. Parents cannot change their child’s core temperament, but they can shape the way a child expresses it.   Temperament-Tailored Game Plan   Identifying your child’s temperament does not mean he is excused for bad behavior. It does mean that a more intense child may need extra help to manage his behavior. Observe this example: your child’s scoop of ice cream has just descended from his cone onto the sidewalk. Consequently, he kicks you to express his frustration. The message he needs to learn is that anger is okay but he may not hurt someone when he is hurting. Then he must hear what he can do.   Knowing your child’s triggers will also be helpful when it comes to setting up an environment that promotes self control. For example, a child who is low on the adaptability scale will not do well with surprises and may struggle with transitions. So, rolling into the Wendy’s drive-though when Burger King is expected will trigger a meltdown. Forewarning when plans change or just before a transition from one activity to the next will make the world more manageable for your child. Acknowledge your child’s feelings in difficult circumstances.   Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall   Everyone has a temperament profile, not just children! So when it comes to parenting, caregivers must be aware of their own triggers as well as their child’s and be aware of power struggles.   I recall my “sensitive” four year old tying and retying her shoes so they felt just right (this after making sure the seam on her sock aligned perfectly across her toes). Throughout this daily ordeal my intense nature made it hard to cope with her behavior. With crossed arms and foot tapping, I’d remind her about the time, which lead to her beginning the process over again. Eventually I recognized that the behavior was an aspect of her temperament I could not change. So, I adapted the environment by starting the day 15 minutes earlier and ignoring the shoe ritual. This ended the power struggle and the rest of the morning went easier.   Parents have a powerful impact on their child’s behavior even though certain aspects of personality are fixed. The following are keys to nurturing your child’s nature.  
    • Observe your child’s reaction to things. What situations promote difficult versus good behavior?
    • Set up the environment to help your child manage his behavior. If he falls apart at birthday parties wait a year or so. Or, plan to stay for only a brief time and leave before he becomes overwhelmed.
    • Use temperament to guide expectations. A sensitive child will not be happy wearing scratchy clothes. Save your energy for teaching good behavior rather than working against your child’s nature.
    • Be aware of your own temperament and triggers. Is your child’s behavior really a problem or is it just an irritation to you? Remember, to teach self control to our children, we must model it.
    • Discipline behavior, not feelings. Refrain from dismissing your child’s feelings. Set clear, firm limits about what is not acceptable and actively teach what is!

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