A lot of the advice and information we receive as parents is based on an assumption that all kids are born as blank slates, and differences in behavior and performance are based solely on parenting and environment. If our child is doing well, this assumption makes us feel great about ourselves as parents. If they’re having problems, it’s easy to feel embarrassed, insecure, or guilty. This assumption is unfortunate, because it doesn’t take into account the important factor of temperament.
In this article, I’ll talk about how temperament impacts who our children are, the way we relate to them, and how to adapt to this, sometimes, very complex dynamic.
Temperament is the genetic and inherent aspect of our personality with which we’re born. It’s the qualities in your child you may have noticed when they were very young, such as being more sensitive or outgoing, quiet or enjoying the spotlight, being meticulous and exact, or being less organized and more carefree. Understanding these innate qualities and adapting to your teen’s unique temperament may be the missing ingredient to help them get over the hump of adolescence.
Monica’s case illustrates this point (names and details have been altered to protect confidentiality).
Jennifer and Mark came in to talk about concerns they were having with their 15 year-old daughter, Monica. Their oldest son, Jarod, had always been easy. He sailed through high school, excelled academically and at sports, and had tons of good friends. In contrast, Monica has struggled academically, hates sports, but loves art and only has two very close friends. They complain that she doesn’t help with chores unless they remind her 10 times. She’s bright, but often doesn’t turn in her work. She spends a lot of time in her room, and they often find themselves getting into power struggles and a “battle of wills”, as Jennifer puts it.
After a couple of meetings with this family, it became clear that the problem wasn’t about Monica or her parents. Monica, in addition to being very intelligent, is extremely compassionate and volunteers once a week at the humane society. She only has a couple of friends, but they’re very loyal and are great kids. Jennifer and Mark are both very loving and attentive. They’re good role models and always make time for Monica.
The problem in this case was a clash in temperament between Monica and her parents.
Mark is an engineer and very concrete and analytical in nature. Jennifer is an event planner and naturally very organized. Both are very social, efficient, and effective problem solvers. Jarod has a temperament very similar to his parents.
Monica is a very different type of kid. She has a disorganized style of thinking, prefers to be spontaneous, gets overwhelmed easily by too much stimulation, and prefers to reflect and observe before jumping into something new. She struggles in science and math, but she thrives in art and theater. She’s very thoughtful and spends a lot of time reflecting on her life and the world.
Once Jennifer and Mark realized that part of the struggle they were having with Monica had to do with a difference in temperament, they began to adapt their approach and expectations to fit Monica’s style. They accepted and supported her need for more one on one attention and extra alone time to recharge. They began to take more time to ask her questions about her thoughts related to current events. They continued to get her additional help in science and math, but focused on finding outlets for her creative pursuits. They were more patient when giving her reminders and learned ways to help her become more organized in a constructive way.
None of this came natural or easy for these very competent parents. In some ways, they had to reinvent themselves after 17 years of doing the same thing. However, shortly after making these changes, the arguments and battles dropped off significantly. Monica’s self-esteem blossomed, and the tension in the house evaporated.
Below are seven common temperament styles to look out for with some thoughts for adapting to them.
Holds onto feelings and experiences longer
Tends to be more reflective
Highly attuned to environment (non-verbal, energy)
More likely to be an introvert
How to help: Be aware of your tone and the pace of your voice when talking. Ensure plenty of down time and sleep. Provide opportunities for more one on one time with you.
Can be all or nothing
Can get burned out easier
May have a lower dopamine baseline (it takes more to experience reward and stimulation)
Can be more at risk for harmful and risky behavior
Easy to get into battles of control
How to help: Provide clear choices and avoid power struggles. Set clear and concrete boundaries. Help them improve self-awareness and reflection by making observations and asking questions about their feelings, thoughts, and body language.
Has a harder time sitting still
Needs movement every day
Learns better while doing
How to help: Ensure lots of outlets for physical activity. Structured, organized, and challenging physical activities (sports) are really important. Find ways to incorporate physical activity with talking. Examples are tossing a ball, shooting baskets, going for a hike or bike ride.
- Frustration Tolerance:
More likely to avoid new situations or challenge themselves
Strong fear of failure, rejection, humiliation
More likely to have low self-esteem as a result
How to help: Break tasks into small pieces, simplify their life and schedule. Will need extra support at times to complete new tasks. Put them in situations where they can be praised for effort, courage, and not giving up. Treat their behavior problems as a lack of frustration tolerance skills, instead of a lack of motivation.
Loses focus often
May do assignments but not turn them in
Can get overwhelmed easily
How to help: Create organization systems, like checklists, visual calendars, planners, labels etc. Ask them to repeat expectations. Break tasks into small pieces. Be patient, sometimes, when he doesn’t get things done. He really did just space out. Problems with school are more about lacking organization and planning skills than a lack of effort or motivation.
A difficult time switching from one task to another
Has a hard time with changes
May resist trying new things
How to help: Help your teen predict challenges that may arise during transitions. Provide ample preparation, offer extra support during difficult or major changes, and consider lowering your expectations during these times.
- Sensory Threshold:
Will be more or less visual, auditory, verbal, or tactile/kinesthetic
May get overwhelmed by too much of the wrong kind of sensory stimulation
How to help: Find ways to engage them through their strengths and help them learn how to grow and build their deficits. Notice ways that important aspects of their environment may not support their sensory needs. For example, a kid who has difficulty with auditory processing may get overwhelmed by too much talking and/or noise. Someone with verbal processing struggles may have a hard time expressing what they’re thinking, which can lead to frustration and misunderstanding.
The degree of intensity for these temperament styles will vary from teen to teen. Most will exhibit a combination of several styles. As in the case of Jarod and Monica, some temperament styles are more difficult for parents to deal with than others. As parents, we tend be challenged more by a child with a temperament different than our own.
These aren’t personality flaws or mental health disorders, but if we don’t adapt to the unique set of traits that make up our child and see them for whom they are, then they begin to think they are fundamentally flawed, and temperamental issues will turn into mental health issues. Instead, we need to cut ourselves some slack and help our children see their temperament as part of who they are and help them build on it as they transition into adulthood.