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How a Child's Behavior Temperament Affects Parents

One of the most important factors in the workload a parent faces parenting is their child's temperament. Discover which traits might make a child more difficult to raise.

By Cary Chugh, author of Don't Swear with Your Mouth Full

All parents enjoy basking in the glow of their child's accomplishments and patting themselves on the back when their child exhibits exemplary behavior. People often chuckle at this kind of self-congratulating, specially when it's clear that the parents had nothing to do with their child's achievements or behavior when a child begins showing difficult behaviors, however, people are often very quick to judge the parent's' shortcomings as being a driving force behind the child's actions. Unfortunately, parents of difficult children are often the first ones to point the finger at themselves or to blame their child for making their lives miserable. It turns out that the answer to the dilemma posed by the difficult child is more complex than a simple blame game.

One of the most important factors in determining the workload a parent will have in raising her child is set in place at conception. Your child's temperament is largely a genetic issue, and at present, you have no say over what kind of child comes into the world.

Temperament can be thought of as the collection of biological underpinnings that your child is born with that determine his behavior, emotional, and physiological predispositions. Even though it is only partly accurate to describe it the following way, it might be easiest to think about eh temperamental traits as being precursors to your child's adult personality.

Drs. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess were pioneers in the study of temperament in children, and are best known for their work on the New York Longitudinal Study that began in 1956 and helped created the foundation upon which all present-day temperamental research is based. Drs. Thomas and Chess evaluated infants across nine different temperamental categories, and these are listed and defined below. See if you can figure out what traits might make a child more difficult to raise.

Activity Level
Refers to the proportion of the day during which your child is actively engaged in physical movement, as opposed to resting. A high activity level will likely mean parents will need to provide more monitoring and supervision, behavioral correction, and childproofing of the house.

Refers to how predictable your child's bodily functions are, such as his sleep-wake cycle, feeding times, and bowel movements. Parents experience more stress when their child shows irregularity in any of these areas.

Refers to how your child handles new things, such as new children, adults, foods, places, and toys. Approach behaviors are positive reactions to these introductions (e.g., smiling or crawling closer to the person or object). Withdrawal behaviors are negative reaction to these introductions (e.g., crying, hiding behind the parent's legs, spitting the food out.) Withdrawal behaviors increase the parents' workload.

Refers to how your child responds to new situations, as opposed to new things. Children's general ability to adapt would predict the amount of time they would need to adjust to sleeping at a strange house or playing in a new day care, for example. Parents are more likely to experience stress with children who are low in adaptability.

Threshold of Responsiveness
Refers to the intensity of stimulation needed in order to provoke a response from your child. Kids with a high threshold might require persistent attempts from an adult to get them to react to her, whereas kids with a low threshold require minimal prompting. This is relevant across all senses and can include your child's sensitivity to touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. Parents can become frustrated if their child does not respond to their attempts to get his attention. They can also be frustrated by a child who is hypersensitive to particular kinds of stimulation (e.g., loud noises or tags on his shirts).

Intensity of Reaction
Refers to the amount of energy your child puts forth when reacting to various situations, such as how loud he cries or laughs, how vigorous his motor activity is, and how much he verbalizes. Kids with a high intensity of reaction may tend to feel first and think later. They may be prone to becoming overhwlemed emotionally and may be less responsive to their parents' attempts to calm them. I often joke that these kids are the first to say "I love you" and the first to say
"I hate you!"

Quality of Mood
Refer to the proportion of your child's day during which he appears joyful and happy, as opposed to appearing unhappy and unfriendly. When parents have a baby who is frequently unhappy, they may find it hard to crate positive, affectionate, and loving interactions with him on a regular basis. In other words, it is easier to change a diaper, wipe a face, pick up toys, schedule appointments, and buy groceries when the face opposite yours is smiling.

Refers to how easily your child's behavior is sidetracked by things going on around him. High distractibility can lead to poor follow-through with parent requests and can lead to conflicts.

Attention Span and Persistence
Refers to the length of time during which your child engages in a particular activity and how long he will keep at it despite any obstacles he may encounter. The longer the child can attend to a task, the fewer demands he places on his parents. On the other hand, highly persistent children may not accept the limits their parents set for them. This is one of the reasons why so many difficult children struggle with transitions, like getting reader for school in the morning, coming to the table for dinner, taking a bath or shower, and going to bed.

Cary Chugh, Ph. D. is a child psychologist in private practice in New York State. His book, Don't Swear with Your Mouth Full provides modifications to traditional parenting techniques to make them more effective for children with difficult behavior.

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