Each child is born with certain physical traits that underlie his basic personality. Many children become difficult because their "equipment" just isn't working right. As they struggle, they can become fussy, irritable, negative, or self-absorbed. The final shape of a child's personality is determined partly by how his parents and other caregivers relate to these physical traits. Challenging children can become more pleasant, flexible people. They can become easier to live with - less at odds with the world, more trusting and secure. Life with a difficult child, as you have seen in this book, doesn't have to be a perpetual battleground.
This is a quick guide to figuring out your child's personality type and your reaction to it. It should help you identify which pattern your child most closely approximates, even though most youngsters won't - as is always true in life - fit neatly into one category or another.
Keep in mind that challenging children may vary greatly in day-to-day moods and outlook. One moment, they appear mature, respectful, empathetic, compassionate. Later that same day, they are crawling under tables, whining, clinging, throwing tantrums, and bossing everyone around. So don't take any one piece of behavior as a way of labeling your child. Look for patterns over a period of time. And, above all, don't be discouraged if your child appears to be making no progress at all! In time, he will. Sometimes it can just be hard to see.
The Highly Sensitive Child
Behavior: Children who are highly sensitive tend to exhibit several types of behavior. Among the most common patterns are fearfulness and caution. In infancy, a sensitive baby dislikes new routines and is especially clingy in new situations. He restricts his range of exploration and avoids being assertive. In the early years, this child may be plagued with excessive fears and worries and display shyness when trying to form friendships and interact with new adults. In late childhood, he may feel anxious or panicky and have mood swings. He may become depressed. In general, he tends to be inhibited, reactive, and detail-oriented. He becomes easily overloaded by emotional or interpersonal events. The highly sensitive child also tends to be very perceptive. He senses every nuance and subtlety of his world and is also quite sensitive to the feelings of other people; he can "read" other people through their expressions, body language, and voice tone. Because sensitive youngsters are so attuned to the world, they tend to focus on the details of what they see, hear, and experience.
Physical Makeup: Sensitive children may overreact to touch, loud noises, and bright lights. Sights, sounds, certain smells, and tactile experiences that bring other people pleasure can be overwhelming, irritating, and sometimes downright painful to them.
Some sensitive children face difficulty in dealing with "spatial" concepts (that is, they have trouble processing information in terms of the space around them). For example, they might get lost easily. They may not be able to figure out distances (when mom leaves the room, for example, they haven't an emotional sense of where she went - to the next room or across the country). As a result, they feel less secure than other children and may panic when their parents leave them.
In addition to spatial difficulties, the highly sensitive child may also exhibit motor-planning challenges - that is, he lacks the skills that are required to carry out a series of motor sequences, such as putting on socks, kicking a soccer ball, or writing a sentence. So if your child is very verbal but seems to get lost when he has to do anything that involves a series of behaviors or movements, be aware that his difficulty may be linked to a motor-planning problem. He could be very organized when he is operating in an area of strength, but might appear disorganized when dealing with a vulnerable area.
Sensitive children may be overstimulated by internal forces as well as outside events. Their own emotions are experienced very intensely. The child may throw himself down, sobbing with disappointment, jump up and down screaming with joy, or shriek and pound the walls with rage. This emotional sensitivity extends to the physical realm as well. He may complain of muscle aches, stomach aches, and other internal pains. Puberty may be especially scary because of its new sensations.
How Parents Respond: The patterns described here may be inadvertently intensified by parents or caregivers who respond to the child by vacillating - for example, by being overindulgent and overprotective some of the time and punitive and intrusive at other times. The best approach is for parents and caregivers to provide consistent empathy; very gentle, but firm, limits; and gradual and supportive encouragement to explore new experiences.
The Self-Absorbed Child
Behavior: The self-absorbed child may appear apathetic, easily tired. As an infant, she may seem quiet, perhaps even depressed and uninterested in exploring people or objects. She may not respond quickly to touch, sound, or other stimuli. As a preschooler, she may sit passively rather than explore her world. More than most toddlers, she may appreciate familiar routines. As an older child or a teenager, she may appear self-absorbed and disinterested in the world. However, her powers of fantasy and capacity for independence may become assets as she matures.
Physical Makeup: Unlike the highly sensitive child, the self-absorbed child needs a lot of stimuli: a great deal of sound before she takes notice, stronger touch before she feels pressure, plenty of movement before she perceives kinetic pleasures. The loud slamming of a car door, a roaring vacuum cleaner, noisy older siblings - these noises don't attract her attention as easily as they would other children's. Parents of a baby with this self-absorbed temperament find that it takes twenty or even forty seconds of energetic talking to get her to take notice. They may find that she craves bright lights, loud sounds, lots of motion and speed (big swings, exciting carnival rides) because she simply isn't sensitive to subdued activity.
The self-absorbed child may appear to prefer her own thoughts and fantasies to the outside world. Given her lack of reactivity to outside stimuli, it is much easier for her to tune inward and become self-absorbed.
Low muscle tone and poor balance and concentration may make this child work harder to crawl, push a toy, reach out, jump, and climb. Difficulties arise with skills that require sequencing physical movements (motor planning). This can include drawing a picture, tying a shoe, climbing a ladder, or getting through the kitchen without knocking anything over.
This child may also have difficulties with auditory-verbal processing and expressive language (the ability to put thoughts into words). She may be slow to talk, and later finds it difficult to express herself. It is hard for her to find the words to describe what she did or what she feels or wants.
How Parents Respond: It is all too easy for parents to neglect or give up on a self-absorbed child. She requires intense input from them and other caregivers and teachers to attract her interest and capture her emotional engagement. If people close to her are low-key or laid-back in voice tone and speech rhythm, this child is likely to tune them out. Parents and others need to reach out energetically, responding to her cues (however faint) to help her engage, attend, interact, and explore the world.
The Defiant Child
Behavior: The defiant child can be negative, stubborn, controlling. He often does the opposite of what is expected or asked of him. He faces difficulty with transitions and prefers repetition or slow change. He tends to be perfectionist and compulsive.
As an infant, this child may be fussy, difficult, and resistant to changes in routine. As a toddler, when negative behavior is common to all children, he may be even more angry, defiant, and stubborn than most children his age. This child, however, can show joyful exuberance at certain times. A defiant older child or adult may be argumentative and frequently engage in power struggles. He may use passive defiance as a coping strategy, or he may try to avoid difficult situations. In contrast to the fearful, cautious person, he doesn't become fragmented when overwhelmed, but reacts instead by trying to control his world as tightly as possible. When moderated, this child's perfectionism and boldness may well help him as a student or in later work.
Physical Makeup: The defiant child may have many of the same sensitivities to touch, sound, sight, and motion as the highly sensitive child. But, unlike the highly sensitive child, the defiant child tends to have relatively better "visual-spatial" abilities. That is, he can organize in his mind what he sees and hears better than many other children. He uses this strong ability to help keep himself from getting overwhelmed by what he is experiencing. This means that he becomes very controlling about his environment, hence, his demanding, stubborn behavior.
How Parents Respond: It is tempting to respond to the defiant child by becoming angry, intrusive, and punitive. While this is an understandable response to infuriating behavior, it is likely to intensify the defiant child's behavior. Caregiver patterns that are soothing, empathetic, and supportive of slow, gradual change (and that avoid power struggles) tend to enhance the defiant child's flexibility.
Temperament and Your Child's Personality
Personality is determined by the interaction of temperament traits with the environment. Each person (including your child) comes with a factory installed wiring. How your child is wired can determine whether they will be easy or difficult to raise. How well their temperament fits with the environment and how well they are received by the people in the environment will determine how a child sees himself and others.
What is temperament?
Temperament is a set of in-born traits that organize the child's approach to the world. They are instrumental in the development of the child's distinct personality. These traits also determine how the child goes about learning about the world around him.
These traits appear to be relatively stable from birth. They are enduring characteristics that are actually never "good" or "bad." How they are received determines whether they are perceived by the child as being a bad or good thing. When parents understand the temperament of their children, they can avoid blaming themselves for issues that are normal for their child's temperament. Some children are noisier than other. Some are more cuddly than others. Some have more regular sleep patterns that others.
When parents understand how their child responds to certain situations, they an learn to anticipate issues that might present difficulties for their child. They can prepare the child for the situation or in other cases they may avoid a potentially difficult situation all together.
Parents can tailor their parenting strategies to the particular temperamental characteristics of the child. They can also avoid thinking that a behavior that reflects a temperament trait represents a pathological condition that requires treatment.
Parents feel more effective as they more fully understand and appreciate their child's unique personality.
When the demands and expectations of people and the environment are compatible with the child's temperament there is said to be a "goodness-of-fit." When incompatibility exists, you have what is known as a "personality conflict." Early on parents can work with the child's temperamental traits rather than in opposition to them. Later as the child matures the parents can help the child to adapt to their world by accommodating to their temperamental traits.
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