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Ask any mother of more than one child and she will tell you that each one of her children as babies were different from one another in terms of behavior and mood. One cried more, one slept better, one was a better eater, and so forth. Children come into the world having their own unique temperaments. Some are “easy,” meaning they react well to new foods, people, and situations. Others are “difficult,” meaning they react poorly to new foods, people, and situations. If you are the parent of one or more difficult children, this is good news, because whether a child is easy or difficult affects your self-esteem as a parent. Easy children make a parent feel that she is a good parent. Difficult children make a parent feel angry, inadequate and blamed. Stop blaming yourself and recognize those inborn traits of your children. And also understand that these traits are “how” your children behave, not “why.”

Unfortunately, not everybody recognizes that children can be measured on a scale of easy to difficult, and that a child’s temperament is determined from birth. Has this ever happened to you? You are in a public place, and your child begins causing a problem for you. Let’s say she is insisting on having her own way. She gets very loud with you, I mean really loud, and attracts a lot of attention. Other people stare at you. You know what these people are thinking. What kind of a parent are you? This type of judgment is so unfair. Or, what about visiting with a friend who also has children? And, your friend’s children are pictures of perfection—compliant, cooperative and well behaved. You notice right away the difference between her kids and yours. You begin to feel inadequate as a parent and you think to yourself, “How does she raise her kids to be so good?” The answer is she does not do anything special; her kids were all born with easy temperaments. Wow!

Do not conclude that you are doomed to misery if you have one or more difficult children. There is a lot you can and should be doing. We will talk about this in a bit. Right now I want to tell you where I get the idea that some children are born easy and others are born difficult. Beginning in 1956, two researchers, Dr's. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, conducted a landmark longitudinal study of children and temperament. They followed 133 persons from infancy to young adulthood. They found nine behavior characteristics that were present from infancy that continued to be seen as these children grew up. The nine traits are:

  1. Activity Level—the amount of physical activity a child tends toward, ranging from passive (calm) to very active (revved up).
  2. Distractibility—the degree to which a child can be distracted, ranging from able to pay attention to easily distracted.
  3. Persistence—the degree to which a child stays with an activity he likes, ranging from short attention span to persistent or stubborn.
  4. Adaptability—the degree to which a child can handle making a transition or change from one activity to another, ranging from easy to difficult (locked in to what he is doing).
  5. Approach/withdrawal—is the child’s reaction to new things—new places, people, foods, and clothes. Reactions range from interest and comfort with new things to strong protests and resistance.
  6. Intensity—the amount of energy used to express mood, whether happy or unhappy, ranging from mild tone to loud.
  7. Regularity—the degree to which a child is predictable in habits of sleeping, eating and elimination, ranging from predictable to unpredictable (hard to determine when she is hungry or tired, etc.).
  8. Sensory threshold—is the child’s reaction to things that stimulate his senses—colors, noise, light, smells, taste, hot and cold, texture and feel of clothes, etc. Reactions range from tolerant to easily bothered or over stimulated.
  9. Mood—is a child’s predominant or general mood, whether positive (playful, pleasant, friendly) or negative (unpleasant, crying, unfriendly).

Each one of these characteristics has a range from easy to difficult. Let’s consider the intensity trait as an example. At the easy end of the range is “mild tone,” and at the difficult end is “loud.” A child’s intensity level may be at either end of the range or anywhere in between. This is true of all nine traits. How easy or difficult a child is depends on how close she is to the easy side or difficult side of each trait. For, example, a child may be nearer the easier side of eight traits and closer to the difficult side of just one. Another child may be near the middle in all nine traits, and still another may be near the difficult end in all nine traits. The possibility of different temperament profiles is great. Truly, children are unique in appearance and in temperament.How can you know whether your child is difficult? Read over the nine traits again and think about your child. Where do you feel your child measures on each trait—closer towards the easier side or the difficult side? There is no need to be perfectly accurate. You should get a general sense whether your child is easy, difficult, or moderate.

How does this knowledge about children’s temperament help us as parents? First of all, it gives us good reason not to bear the blame for our children’s difficult behavior. Now we can blame nature. Second, it allows us to respond to our difficult child not in frustration and anger, but with understanding. If we believe we are solely responsible for why our difficult child misbehaves we will compensate by reacting in less effective ways, most often by intensifying our disciplinary efforts. Ill feelings and resentment can develop between our child and us.

So, if you recognize that one or more of your children lean towards the difficult side of temperament, what should you do? It is important that we respond to their behavior without blaming ourselves. Because we love our children we must respond to them. As parents we have the means to influence and shape the behavior of even the most difficult child. It means we have to put forth more effort and use more skills than those more fortunate parents who have only easy kids. How children develop is based upon the interaction of both nature (inborn temperament) and nurture (parenting). It is a two way street. But knowing about our children’s temperament is going to make it a lot easier for us and will allow us to shed the guilt and anger that comes from raising a difficult child.

I like to point out to parents that children who are difficult by nature are not willful by nature. These children do not have any intentions to hurt their parents or deliberately make life miserable for their family. These children are simply behaving according to their inborn temperaments. As parents we need to be very careful here and to use a red flag of caution. Even though we may have a child who possesses a difficult temperament we can respond ineffectively towards his behavior and cause him to develop willful intentions to be defiant, oppositional, and rebellious. Yes, there is such a thing as a willful child, but children are not born willful. Children who are born with difficult temperaments can and should be nurtured into being their best, which means they are responsible, cooperative, and motivated to achieve.

As parents, if we make the mistake of thinking our children’s temperamental traits are personal attacks against us, we run the risk of feeling resentful towards them. These feelings of resentment can deepen and cause us to respond to our children in ways that are less nurturing and more hostile. When this happens we begin to discourage our children. Because children have a basic need to feel worthwhile (accepted and valued) they become willful in an attempt to protect themselves from feeling worthless and rejected. In order to overcome their sense of discouragement they will be rebellious and revengeful towards us and other adults. We can prevent this from happening by keeping in mind that the difficult behaviors of our children are due to their temperament, and not their will. It is important that we do not take their temperamental behaviors as personal attacks on our authority as parents. Also, and this is extremely important, we can prevent our children from becoming willful by using skills that give our children encouragement and help us discipline them effectively.

If you have a difficult child here is one tip you will want to always keep in mind: prepare your child for what will happen. If your difficult child is locked in to watching television or playing a game and it is nearing time for him to have supper or take a bath or go to bed, prepare him by telling him ahead of time what is going to happen. For example, “Billy, you are going to have supper in five minutes, get ready to stop playing your game.” Or “Leslie, tomorrow we are visiting some friends you have never met. Let me tell you about them so they won’t seem so new when you meet them.” Preparing your children ahead of time will help them to make a better adjustment to changes and new situations.

Difficult children can grow up to be well-rounded, highly productive and successful adults. While easy children are a pleasure to raise they can also be too mild, especially in situations that demand that they assert themselves. Children with difficult temperaments are more inclined to be assertive, energetic and taking the initiative. Such characteristics when handled appropriately promote success in the world of work. Difficult children can become highly creative and motivated adults if they are well managed as children.

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