How to parent with different temperaments

John Hoffman looks at why parenting feels harder when you and your child have different temperaments

Illustrated by Emiliano Ponzi/Magnet Reps

If you asked me to name the most important thing I’ve learned about raising kids, the role of temperament would be right up there. Temperament affects children’s behaviour at many levels: how quickly they warm up to new people, how likely they are to explore, how touchy they are emotionally, and whether they are bold explorers or cautious observers.

Understanding temperament is key to comprehending your child and his needs. It’s also key to understanding why perfectly good parenting strategies sometimes don’t work on certain kids.

There are reams of research on this topic, including a recent study that tracked 214 kids. Over a three-year period, the kids who had a harder time regulating their impulses, attention and emotions were more likely to be anxious or unhappy than kids with more “effortful control,” as the researchers called it. This was true regardless of the parenting style they got.

However, there were exceptions, and parenting style sometimes made a difference. Rather surprisingly, some of the kids with more effortful control also developed symptoms of anxiety and depression — and they were more likely to do so if their parents provided high levels of guidance and low levels of freedom. On the other hand, kids with less effortful control did better when parents provided more structure and less freedom.

What does this mean for you and your child? Well, media reports spun it this way: There is no “one-size-fits-all parenting,” thus “nimble” parents should “tailor” their parenting to their children’s individual personalities.

Absolutely. But this simplistic advice ignores a key reality: Parents have temperaments too.

Not every parent can provide structure, or autonomy, as easily as the next. If your child has low effortful control, and you are not someone who particularly likes a lot of structure or limits, you may find it a struggle to provide the structure and monitoring your kid needs. Flexible thinkers (pick me!) tend to have more trouble setting and enforcing limits, which some children need more than others. It’s not like we have parenting taps labelled “flexibility,” “structure,” “support” or “limit setting” that we can turn on and off or adjust at will.

Bottom line? You are who you are, and your child is who she is. If there’s a mismatch between your two temperaments, parenting may feel harder than you think it should be. And that’s because it will be more difficult for you to provide the structure, autonomy, gentle guidance, closer supervision or whatever your child happens to need because of her temperament, personality or brain wiring.

That doesn’t mean you can’t give your kid what she needs, or learn to live together. We are, after all, intelligent, flexible creatures capable of adapting to our circumstances. But due to the wonders of temperamental differences, some of you will have to work a little harder to understand your child and figure out how to parent in a way that doesn’t come naturally to you. The biggest mistake you could make is to stick doggedly to the approach you think should work, when it isn’t working for your child.

Originally published November 2011.

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