Conventional wisdom regarding temperament recommends that parents “work with your child’s temperament, not against it.” What this sage advice means is that you seek to understand your child’s inborn personality, accept its genetically-based limitations and cultivate its associated unique assets. The biological nature of temperament renders children blameless for certain unsavory tendencies they inherited, whether little Joey exhibits moody reclusiveness or a daredevil streak. As parents, we want to make the most of our kids’ personality strengths and minimize the potential harm of what could be weaknesses.
A shy, reactive child will be slow to warm up to new situations, need strong encouragement about participation in activities and thrive best in certain low-stress niches. His well-informed parent will understand that he needs firm nudges to join social groups but avoid overwhelming him with excessive expectations, especially in unfamiliar circumstances. The high-energy and thrill-seeking child will love activity, risk and stimulation. Her savvy parent will accept the chaos that accompanies her personality type and provide opportunities for her to explore her curiosity safely, learn to curb her excessive zeal and cope with limits.
Basic aspects of temperament endure from the cradle to the grave, but in between the role of nurturing is huge in shaping a child’s life. The introverted child may become a famous professor or a hermit, and the aggressive extrovert may become a successful entrepreneur or a con artist. Parent navigation plays a big (but not all-determining) role in the map-quest. Good and bad random events, neighborhood, school and financial resources also play large roles.
Although there are many theories and systems of categorization, cross cultural research has shown that temperaments are distinguished by the degrees to which we experience and express fear, aggression and sociability. While all sorts of genetic code contribute to our budding personalities, a grand central station mediating our “nature” is our arousal system.
An ancient relic in our old emotional brains, called an amygdala (one in each hemisphere), evolved over millions of years to protect us from dangers and help us survive. It detects and reacts to perceived threats, triggering the “fight or flight” response. Fear allows us to detect and avoid danger, aggression enables us to fight it, and sociability gives us the capability of coping with it and collaborating with others.
Threats can be real or imagined, life-threatening or innocuous. The arousal system sets off a physiological “stress” alarm that determines whether your baby likes the rattle or screams bloody murder. It influences whether your preschooler runs happily into class or begs to stay home with a (real, painful, neurochemical-induced) stomach ache. It contributes to whether your teen joins a bunch of clubs or refuses to join any at all.
Obviously, these temperaments exist on a continuum, and the most challenged parents (and children) are dealing with the extremes of high and low arousal. The fearful, avoidant and easily overwhelmed child with over-reactive amygdalae will dread the unfamiliar and perceive danger everywhere. The child with under-reactive amygdalae will be risk-prone and boldly seek excitement everywhere. The parent’s challenge is to nudge the avoidant child forward and pull the sensation-seeking child back, so they can both explore the world safely and fully, while learning how to self-regulate their hyper and hypo arousal systems.
Kids with either kind of extreme arousal system are lucky if they have high sociability in the mix of their temperaments (which is linked with serotonin, the “well-being” neurotransmitter). This genetic gift will mean that the anxious kid will still want friends (or at least one or two) which helps her deal with stress. And the brash, wild kid with sociability will be motivated to handle negative feedback when she is over-the-top with her dominant and bossy impulses.
On the other end of the continuum, opposite high sociability, is irritability. These kids are annoyed easily, which for some will erupt in aggressiveness, high anxiety, depressive tendencies, or a combination of these features. Parents of these children are tested to their utmost to avoid judgment and instead offer compassion and resourceful strategies to help their children self-soothe, cope and problem-solve (see my“7 Tips for managing meltdowns” post). The equanimity and resilience that can come with sociability and a positive mood can be genetic gifts. However, we also know that tempestuous, melancholic and intense personalities have created brilliant works of art, science, music and literature.
The low reactive/high-energy child
The child who is fearless about trying new things, high-energy and intense has upsides and downsides in his temperament type (see “Z is for Zeal” post). Of course, parents wish for “just the right amount” of reactivity and energy—appropriate fear for danger and risk, together with passion for school, extracurricular activities and a future career-building. We like the idea of “fire in the belly”, but not so much that little Janey runs off the rails with her plans to become the next Beyonce by age 14, or so little that little Johnny only wants to play alone with his computer in the basement.
A kid I worked with a while back got into academic trouble because all he wanted to do was skateboard tricks for countless hours (until it was snowboarding season, that is). After the six year college plan, he established a customized fitness center which became a successful business venture. The fact that no one would have guessed that this high-energy kid would end up a highly motivated entrepreneur at the age of 30 is a testament to the mystery of child development…and to the dedication of parents who kept leveraging their support for staying on a responsibility track.
A parent’s first challenge with a high energy and risk-taking kid is to accept that trying to tame “sensation-seeking” is like riding a bucking bronco. Parents of children with “spirited”, “difficult” or ADHD temperaments are thrown for a loop when they dutifully restrain their kids’ impulses to kick up a storm and fly high. Vertigo should be expected.
A child comes by a high-energy, risk-prone temperament as innocently as any genetic trait, like blue eyes or left-handedness. However, parenting plays a significant role in how the child’s energy level is harnessed, regulated and directed. High zeal kids can end up troubled, flat-lining or quite successful. Parenting these kids is a marathon event, and it requires more stamina and skill to guide the gonzo energy into positive outcomes.
My experience as a psychologist counseling kids with extreme temperaments is that they all benefit from extra-specially skilled parents. All kids need their parents to praise good behaviors, ignore low-level messes, develop their talents, and keep a sense of humor. But since high energy kids kick up so much dust, parenting efforts need to be multiplied to manage conflicts and keep the lid on risk-taking while outlets for high-energy fun and expression are established.
It is inevitable that parents of extremely high energy children get mad and upset at their child for the collateral damage that comes with a bucking bronco. Havoc at home, school and everywhere else is an everyday reality.
When these high-zeal kids are young, they are likely to frequently end up in melt-downs when they get riled up with emotion. As teens, they still can, especially with the expected increase in moodiness, reactivity and risk-taking associated with pubertal and brain changes. With the immaturity of the impulse control system and hormones at all-time highs, these bucking broncos can look like wild, wild horses when loose on the prairie (read: when unsupervised).
Parents will want to anticipate situations that are likely to trigger zeal gone amok. Any activity that jacks up high-energy to a frenzy level is likely to be risky. Thus, parents of these kids are especially advised to increase supervision and safety plans for big events (school field trips), fun outings (birthday parties, sleepovers), and special social occasions (prom and graduation).
As a group, teens benefit from parental monitoring. High energy teenagers who are “low reactives” to the specter of risky business need even more supervision than the average teen for obvious reasons (see “L is for Limiting Risk-taking“). Sensation-seeking teens are at higher risk for teenage pregnancy, substance use, truancy, smoking, and juvenile crime. Since parental monitoring and restricting freedom when necessary can be such a huge bummer for risk-attracted kids, parents need to work twice as hard to maintain good relationships and positive feelings in the home during the rambunctious adolescent years.
The high reactive/sensitive child
Highly sensitive children react strongly and negatively to novelty and have trouble moving out of their comfort zones. Highly sensitive children are not necessarily low in energy, but they are low in tolerance for trying new things. New experiences trigger the false alarm system in their “fear and anxiety” centers. Children who are shy, anxious and avoidant will try to get out of doing anything that raises their distress levels.
On a subjective distress continuum of 1 to 10, extremely sensitive children will give you a 7-10 level “reading” for how it feels to join a team, club or group. Ideally, a registering of “10” should be reserved for a life-threatening emergency, not a birthday party. Novelty and uncertainty are negative emotions for these kids (as boredom is to the low reactive, high zeal kids). Trying out for a play? Going to sleep-away camp for a month? Attending the first dance in high school? One kid’s nightmare of a new situation is another (high zeal) kid’s idea of heaven on earth.
Highly sensitive kids need their parents to nudge them forward into the big social world, just as low reactive/high zeal kids need parents to pull them back. There is a catchy phrase in neuroscience for describing how people naturally seek their emotional comfort zones: “individuals seek their optimal state of arousal”. High-energy kids rev themselves up to feel good, whereas shy and anxious children will avoid, avoid and avoid.
Anxiety and sadness squelch zeal and motivation. Parents need to encourage their children to be brave and push past their inclination to minimize discomfort by avoidance. These kids can’t help it that they get triggered by their low threshold for fear and anxiety. But like the hyper kid that needs to learn to self-control, the highly sensitive child needs to develop skills for coping with anxiety states and forging ahead.
Engineering new experiences for these children and teens can kick-start the discovery of zeal when the initial anxiety or adversity abates. The challenge is finding settings that provide the dual functions—anxiety that can be tolerated and growth experiences that can unleash zeal and gratification over time.
Parents need to be tenacious. They can give their children a deadline for choosing a sport or extracurricular activity, telling them that they get to choose “which” activity, but not “whether” they will commit to something. And if the child refuses, the parents should present a united front and choose for the child. For shy or reluctant children, a more benign option will be a non-competitive context with adult support, like martial arts, African drumming or volunteering at a retirement home. They can always choose an alternative—but there needs to be one! (or two!)
Parents need to be creative. In the same way that parent of high zeal kids might broker time with homework in exchange for social freedoms, parents of anxious and avoidant kids can allow solo time to be contingent on a certain amount of time spent with friends and activities outside the home.
A sensitive child’s reactive, fearful and cautious tendency usually continues in some form through childhood and adolescence. The good news is that parents who continue their nudging, exposing their kids to incremental challenges, may be happily surprised at the growth spurt that can accompany the college launch. College usually provides a huge leap forward in social competence, since it provides daily exposure to a zillion new experiences.
Psychologists tend to use the word “temperament” for referring to the stable traits of infants and kids and the word “personality” for those of adults. Kids, like their parents, vary along all sorts of continuums of personality features. One well-researched system describes the “Big Five”: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and negative/anxious reactivity.
Low and high reactivity of children, along with their sociability index, map onto these Big Five personality dimensions over time. Parents observe how open their children are to new experiences, how anxious they are to follow rules and expectations, how much they enjoy being with people, and how easy-going and resilient they are with social interactions. And like their parents, children have their own particular combos of these dimensions.
There have been thousands of studies documenting the enduring nature of personality characteristics. However, there are also volumes written about the “nurture” part of parenting and the environmental influences over a life time which alter these characteristics tremendously. And outside the ivory tower of studies, the real world of childrearing lives on, where parents develop their children’s personality strengths and finesse the weaknesses the best they can.