Parenting the Challenging Temperament
You’re exhausted and the day has just begun. It seems like more days than not, you’re struggling with your child over even the littlest of things. You may find yourself frequently yelling and making empty threats, or pleading with and bribing your child just to get them to brush their teeth or get dressed. Parents of children with difficult temperaments may find themselves at odds with each other, as they may take different approaches to parenting… one may over-discipline and the other may give up trying to discipline all together. These parents typically end up feeling like their child is the one in charge.
Our children with difficult/challenging temperaments tend to demonstrate irregular biological rhythms, high and impulsive activity levels, and negative reactions to new situations where they become easily overwhelmed. These children tend to have difficulty adapting to change and react with high intensity and inflexibility, demonstrating difficulty with self-soothing and frustration tolerance. Once they do adapt to something new, they tend to become “locked-in”. They are either very distractible or very focused, see the negatives before they can see the positives, and tend to be very sensitive to sensory stimuli. Parenting these children can leave parents feeling frustrated and insecure about their skills as parents.
There’s a gentle strength and a patience required to raise our children with challenging temperaments. If you feel like the parent to a child like the one above, even in part (as children can be a partial fit with this category), pay attention to the following in your parenting style to help support their health and development:
Attunement with accurate feedback will help your child identify strengths, recognize their feelings, develop self-control, and use words to express themselves better… over time.
- Remember that all behavior is communication - track your child as they respond to various stimuli. If you have a child who is regularly acting out right before having to get on the bus to go to school, for example, you might decide to implement screen free mornings, or increase the amount of transition time and structure provided. Remember that children with this temperament will need extra help learning to self soothe and regulate, so your attunement to triggers and boundary setting for them will help them learn these skills.
- Work to identify what your child may be feeling, then put that into words for them. You may notice, for example, your child getting agitated and beginning to ramp up on a drive to a fun activity. Instead of telling them to calm down, try, “Waiting can be very hard, especially when you are excited. We have five more minutes before we get to the museum. How about we count out loud. Can you count to 60 with me five times?” If your child is older, telling them to calm down will still be unhelpful. Try instead, “I know you are angry, and underneath that anger, I understand you’re pretty disappointed. We were all looking forward to this weekend, and now with this virus, we can’t go. We do have some options though… we can have your cousins over and you can plan something fun, or we can take a hike, just us. Which would you like?”
Set clear boundaries, structure, and have consistency in follow through.
- Set your child up for success with structure and predictability. Structure routines into your child’s daily life that are flexible enough to avoid power struggles and consistent enough to create safety. A predictable daily routine includes wake/sleep schedules, meal times, activities, quiet time, etc. Track your child’s responses to the level of flexibility and rigidity/overscheduling, and then increase or decrease the structure accordingly. If your routine has to shift, prepare your child for the change by telling them what will happen differently.
- Boundaries and expectations are necessary. Set clear boundaries and expectations for your child. For example, tell them it’s time to transition by giving them warnings about what time is left and what they can do in that time. Then follow through on the boundary. Children who are very distractible will need instructions one at a time when it’s time to transition.
- Use choices and consequences non-reactively. Avoid power struggles by stating everything as a choice and choose your battles wisely. When it comes to discipline, be clear about age-appropriate boundaries and expectations and connect them to reasonable, related, and respectful consequences. Overreacting, yelling and threatening will only agitate your child more and leave you more frustrated and with more work to do to repair the relationship. Staying calm and matter of fact in your approach builds and protects the trusting relationship.
Finally, respect, love, and parent the child you have.
- Respect your child’s preferences as much as possible. Their aversions to tastes and textures and such will not go away because you force something new on them. Instead, it may make it harder to introduce them to new things. Try to understand their aversions while making opportunities available to try a slightly different taste or texture and be ok if they don’t try it the first 20 times...
- Your child will push your buttons... Non-reactivity is one of the most important factors in managing this temperament… and also the hardest! Expect your buttons will be pushed - predict how they will be pushed ahead of time and have a plan in place. For example, have a way to take a break when you get triggered by tapping in a partner, or taking two minutes to pause the interaction to slow yourself down.
- Do not use labels or name calling. It can be tempting to vent your frustration by telling your child that they’re a “bad kid”, or a “problem”. These labels diminish confidence and, unfortunately, exacerbating the behavior you are trying to shift as the child will live into these labels.
- Focus on your child’s strengths and give positive feedback. When your child begins to struggle, remind them of the times they’ve been successful at managing something difficult, and remind them of the coping skills that were helpful. Give a lot of positive feedback when your child demonstrates adaptability or a positive response to something new. Finally, help your child understand how their natural traits are actually very useful in some situations… like intense focus for studying, or impulsivity for creative projects.
This temperament takes patience, energy, and finesse to parent. Parenting these children is a challenging task. Just like the shy and easy temperaments, though, these children can grow up to be wonderful, productive, and successful adults. If you find yourself having significant difficulty with your child’s behaviors, don’t hesitate to call for family therapy. A good family therapist can help you tease out temperament and identify strategies, along with providing much needed support.