Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
By Rona Renner, RN
“My four-year-old daughter Molly is a bundle of energy, and I just can’t keep up with her. My older son is content playing by himself or reading a book, but Molly wants my attention all of the time. Will she always be this way, or can I train her to be more like her brother? It’s only when the TV is on that I get a break to hear myself think.”
Chances are Molly will always be a high-energy and interactive child, but as she gets older you should be able to direct her energy into creative or athletic outlets. Your son’s mellow temperament probably lulled you into thinking you could have a peaceful and quiet home life. At all stages of development, active and intense children need help directing their energy and often want someone around for company. Parents like you find they can get a break when the TV is on or if another child is around to play. Stay mindful of not using the TV more than the healthy limits you have set. Kids like Molly love attention and can be draining for parents who are lower in energy or stressed. Have a plan ahead of time to prevent frustration and yelling when your child’s energy gets too much for you. Setting up an art table can help, or having a child record a story or song. Try having a dance session with fun music while getting the table set for dinner. Creativity is required with spirited kids.
The Lens of Temperament
For all parents, understanding a child’s temperament is an important way to make sense of behavioral issues, social interactions and power struggles. Temperament traits can stretch or change over time, but acceptance of your child’s current temperament is a first step in figuring out strategies for more harmony at home.
“Temperament” is a person’s first and most natural way of responding. It’s the way we move in the world. It’s the “how” of behavior — for example, how adaptable, persistent or intense a person is. Some children are high energy right from birth (and sometimes in utero) and want to climb and run non-stop, while others are happy to just watch you while you cook. Children come into the world with a style all their own.
In the 1950s, parents (especially mothers) were blamed for all behavior problems. The pioneers in temperament research, Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, were convinced that children had innate differences that played a key role in determining a child’s behavior. They knew competent and loving parents who had challenging children. Chess and Thomas defined these differences as nine temperament traits: sensitivity threshold, activity level, intensity of reaction, rhythmicity, adaptability, mood, approach/withdrawal, persistence and distractibility.
There are many factors that influence your child’s behavior — including parenting style, environment, genetic makeup, past events and siblings. Temperament is one part of the equation. There are no good or bad temperaments, but some children have temperaments that may be more challenging than others. So much depends on your own temperament, and how well you and your child fit with each other. For example:
Your high-energy daughter wants you to play ball with her when she wakes up, but you have lower energy and like to read the paper. Her high energy gets on your nerves, even though it’s normal for her.
Set a routine for how long you will read and help her decide what she’ll do till it’s time to play with you. Set a timer.
Your son is slow to warm, and when you go to a friend’s house he wants to sit on your lap. You’re outgoing, and it’s hard for you to tolerate his caution.
Give him time to get comfortable, and then he’ll be more likely to play with other children once he’s checked out the situation.
You are fast adapting, high intensity and yell easily. Your daughter is low intensity, sensitive and slow to adapt.
Lower your voice and calm down before you react to difficulties getting dressed in the morning. Take three deep breaths before responding, and then redirect her.
Strategies for addressing temperament can be as simple as providing fun activities and chores to keep high-energy kids busy, plenty of transition warnings to kids who adapt slowly, and making sure spirited kids get healthy food and the sleep they need. Parenting strategies also include making time for yourself, paying attention to your needs and getting help from the “village” around you.
Keep thinking about your child’s strengths and passions. Sometimes you won’t know if a behavior is because of inborn traits, environmental factors, developmental stages or past experiences. See it as a puzzle with many pieces, and when you put them together you get a picture of a child who is complex and beautiful.
Rona Renner, RN (“Nurse Rona”), is a nurse, a parent educator and a temperament specialist. The mother of four grown children and grandmother of two, she is the author of “Is That Me Yelling? A Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Kids to Cooperate Without Losing Your Cool.” Rona has been a radio show host for over 15 years and is currently a producer and host of “About Health” on KPFA radio 94.1FM. You can learn more about her at www.nurserona.com.