Many, but not all, children tend to fall into one of three broad and somewhat loosely defined categories: easy, slow to warm up or shy, or difficult or challenging. These labels are useful shorthand, but none offers a complete picture of a child. Many parents find it more useful to think about their child in terms of the nine temperament traits.
The easy child responds to the world around him in an easy manner. His mood is positive, and he is mildly to moderately intense. He adapts easily to new schools and people. When encountering a frustrating situation, he usually does so with relatively little anxiety. His parents probably describe him as a "joy to be around." About 40 percent of children fall into this category.
Another temperamental profile may reveal a somewhat slow-to-warm-up or shy child who tends to have moods of mild intensity, usually, but not always negative. He adapts slowly to unfamiliar surroundings and people, is hesitant and shy when making new friends, and tends to withdraw when encountering new people and circumstances. Upon confronting a new situation, he is more likely to have problems with anxiety, physical symptoms, or separation. Over time, however, he will become more accepting of new people and situations once he becomes more familiar with them.
The difficult or challenging child tends to react to the world negatively and intensely. As an infant he may have been categorized as a fussy baby. As a young child he may have been prone to temper tantrums or was hard to please. He may still occasionally be explosive, stubborn, and intense, and he may adapt poorly to new situations. Some children with difficult temperaments may have trouble adjusting at school, and their teachers may complain of problems in the classroom or on the playground. When children have difficult temperaments, they usually have more behavioral problems and cause more strain on the mother and family.
Of the three types of temperament, parents are most concerned—and often exasperated—when they have a child with the attributes of a difficult or challenging temperament. Without doubt, a child who is negative and intense, adapts poorly, and is strong-willed can be challenging for his parents. Most mothers and fathers will feel overwhelmed, guilty, angry, or inadequate. However, once parents recognize that these characteristics are innate to the child—and, while not caused by the parents, can still be intensified or moderated by them—then mothers and fathers are more likely to change their expectations and begin efforts to help the youngster do and feel better.
It is important to distinguish a difficult temperament from other problems. For instance, recurrent or chronic illnesses, or emotional and physical stresses, can cause behavioral difficulties that are really not a problem with temperament at all. Parents also sometimes interpret a child's style of interacting as inherently bad. However, a youngster's temperament is only a problem when it conflicts with the expectations of his parents, other family members, friends, or teachers. For example, if a parent is intense and ambitious, and his or her youngster is mild-mannered and easygoing, the parent may feel disappointed, frustrated, and angry. The child, pressured to behave in ways foreign to his basic inclinations and innate personality, may resist and cause conflict within the family.
What Parents Can Do
The problem is on its way to being resolved when you recognize and accept the reality that there is a mismatch of temperaments. Once you acknowledge that your personalities are different, any tendencies to blame either the child or yourself should ease. You need to know that nothing is wrong with your child, nor are you an inadequate parent in the way you are raising him or responding to his temperament. Your challenge is to understand your own responses to him and to adjust your expectations to meet his capabilities. You need to modify your childrearing strategies to some extent to ensure a better "fit" between you and your child. At the same time, you need to help him learn to compromise, adapt, and expand his repertoire of acceptable social responses and behavior.
Once you realize that your child's behavior is, to some extent, an innate pattern and beyond his control, you can make an effort to become more patient and thus diminish the stress and strain your youngster feels. When you think of your child's temperament in objective terms rather than react to it emotionally and instinctively, you and your child will get along better. If your child has a difficult temperament as a preschooler, and if you understand and respond appropriately, he will probably modify his behavior, and may not remain as difficult during his school-age years. His intensity can become part of his enthusiasm, determination, charm, and zeal as he feels better about himself and his relationship with others. For that to happen, your own attitudes and behaviors can play a major role in how he adapts and expresses his feelings.
Also, in the weeks and months ahead, avoid labeling your child as bad or difficult. Labels stick, and not only may family members unfairly prejudge your youngster, but he may come to see himself as different, undesirable, or just not fitting in. This negative self-image can further interfere with efforts—both yours and his—to improve his way of responding to difficult situations and can lead to more serious emotional conflicts.