Understanding Your Child's Temperament

Can a family with a mix of temperaments get along? Here's smart advice for achieving maximum harmony.

Tips for understanding your adopted child temperament

Last Halloween, when we took our daughter trick-or-treating at our goblin-and-princess-filled mall, my husband and I had one goal: to get out as quickly as possible. A visit to participating stores to fill her plastic pumpkin with candy, and we’d head back home. Crowds aren’t my cup of tea; as a writer and English professor, I’m more comfortable drinking that tea in my study, surrounded by books. And my banker husband likes things neat and predictable.

But with our extroverted five-year-old in tow, things didn’t go as planned. “Alice is here!” she cried ecstatically, and ran toward her friend, whom she spotted in the noisy throng.

OK. Parenting is always a stretch. And like most adoptive parents, we knew our daughter was even less likely than a biological child to share our temperaments. But I believe this knowledge actually gives adoptive parents an edge in raising children. From the start, we never expected our daughter to match the “family character,” and we let her blossom in her own way.

At least, in theory. But did that mean we had to dive face first into a crowd of strangers?

Actually, yes. It’s the parents’ job to create an environment that meets the needs of their child, not the other way around. While you can’t ignore your own needs, your child’s temperament is what should guide your parenting decisions.

What is temperament?

Temperament is defined as a collection of inborn traits—the most basic, fixed parts of personality that guide how we respond to the world. Child development experts divide temperament into nine traits: adaptability, mood, intensity, level of activity, regularity, persistence, initial reaction, distractibility, and sensitivity. Most children fall somewhere in the middle range of most traits—active but not hyperactive, for example, or somewhat, but not completely, adaptable to new situations. (To gauge child temperament, use the tools in Understanding Your Child’s Temperament (Macmillan) by William Carey, M.D.,Raising Your Spirited Child (HarperCollins) by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka)

Some children, however, lean toward the extremes in one or more temperamental qualities. Most kids are a little anxious on the first day of kindergarten; my friend Linda’s daughter, low on the “adaptability” scale, cried every day, for two months. Transitions between activities can challenge any third-grader, but our babysitter’s son didn’t even notice when he got left in the science corner at recess, engrossed in building a solar system. He’s obviously high in persistence.

“When Julie is excited, she runs,” says Cindy Berkowitz, of White Plains, New York. She’s understating; I’ve seen this child sprinting, gazelle-like, around malls and living rooms, despite her exhausting schedule of swimming lessons, soccer, and karate. It’s just her high-activity temperament.

Experts are reluctant to label any temperament as “good” or “bad,” but recommend that parents learn to manage the challenging part of the child’s temperament. “While certain traits may annoy or frustrate [parents],” writes Carey, “those traits can become assets for the child later. A stubborn toddler who is slow to accept new foods, for example, may become a teenager who is less likely to be swayed by peers to try risky behavior, such as experimenting with drugs.”

Nature and Nurture

What does temperament have to do with adoption? Plenty. “Adoptive families don’t share genes, and haven’t shaped the prenatal environment, so there is less likely to be a temperament match,” explains David Brodzinsky, Ph.D., research director for the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

Studies indicate that temperament is at least 50 percent inherited, according to Carey. “Another 10 to 20 percent may be related to other non-genetic physical factors, like prenatal diet and drug use, and postnatal influences, like anemia or lead in the system,” he explains.

None of which you, the adoptive parent, can control or, sometimes, even know about. The end result, however, isn’t much different for biological families. No one gets “to choose their child’s temperament, nor does your child,” writes Kurcinka, “but you do make a big difference. It is you who helps your child understand his temperament, emphasizes his strengths, and provides him with the guidance he needs to express himself appropriately.”

Goodness of Fit

Temperament experts talk of a family’s “goodness of fit,” referring to the relationship between a parent’s temperament and a child’s. Take my friends, Sandy and Alvaro Garcia-Tunon, of Pittsburgh. From the start, the temperamental match between them and their daughter was amazing. “It’s not our style to scream and yell,” says Sandy. “So we were glad to find that Nicole’s easygoing and doesn’t like chaos. She’s very calm.”

It’s much different in families with temperamental opposites. You react calmly in a crisis; your child screams. You greet strangers readily, eager to make new friends, while your child remains glued to you, hiding his head, at parties and play dates.

Lena S. of Portland, Oregon, knows what this clash feels like. “Our son challenged the status quo from day one,” she says, “and my husband and I are inclined to go along and get along. This made school, personal relationships, and group activities difficult. We were not as supportive as we could have been, which may have led to some of the problems he’s having as a teen.”

Finding Solutions

Once you understand your child’s traits—and your own—you can work toward improving your family’s fit. “My two-year-old is much more intense than the rest of us,” says Cindy Page, of San Diego. “As soon as we spot signs that he’s losing control, we either feed him or sit with him quietly in a chair.” They’ve also learned to use calm voices, maintain consistent discipline, and encourage attachment to a particular blanket that helps him feel secure.

Lena found two strategies that worked for her boundary-pushing son: consistently enforcing a few clear, non-negotiable rules about homework, toothbrushing, and poking his brother, for example, and letting him choose his own afterschool activities.

Try to avoid expecting your child to behave a certain way—or expecting yourself to respond perfectly. “If you have expectations that are not met, and you have a child with a difficult temperament, it can undermine your sense of efficacy as a parent, your confidence, your self-image,” says Brodzinsky. “That, in turn, can lead to less-sensitive parenting.”

The Best of All Worlds

For many families, there’s a silver lining in temperament differences. “At a party, my husband and I gravitate to the space that has the fewest people in it,” says Laura Christianson, of Snohomish, Washington. “Our 14-year-old son, however, is the superball in a room full of bouncing balls. He’s the ultimate social butterfly, and, wherever he goes, it’s like the Pied Piper—he has a band of followers.” Christianson revels in it. “I love that Ben’s temperament is so different from mine and my husband’s.”

The same goes for my family. On Halloween, we ended up having dinner with Alice’s family. Christmas Eve found us laughing over drinks and stories while our kids, the alleged excuse for the get-together, listened for Santa upstairs.

We’d never have met if things had been left up to the inhibited adults, but a couple of sociable kids have made us all friends.

Illustration by Jason Raish 

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