The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

Lasting Effects of a Goodness-or Poorness-of-Fit

Understanding why you feel “It’s always my fault”

Let’s start off with some questions that are important to ask yourself. Have you had ongoing difficulties and tensions with one or both of your parents, going back to early childhood? Do you wonder why your brother (or sister) always seemed to be the favorite child – at your expense? Do you find that you relate so much more comfortably to one of your own children and feel bad about that? If there’s a “yes” to some or all of these questions, as well as questions relating to certain interactions between you and others, you may be looking at a phenomenon known as the goodness - or poorness-of-fit. The psychological meaning of this kind of “fit” refers to the congruence – or lack of it – in the interactions between your personality and that of the personality of the other.

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There has long been recognition of individual differences in temperament and personality going back to the early Greeks. Modern interest in the subject began in the 1950’s with the work of two researchers, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess. Their focus was twofold: to explore a possible connection between infant temperament and what they defined as negative psychological development; and to offer what information they could to pediatricians and parents. The results of their research formed the basis for much of current parenting literature. They also are credited with coining the phrase “goodness-of-fit” – defined as the congruence -- or lack of it -- between the child’s temperament/personality and the personalities, attitudes and parenting practices of the parents.

A goodness-of-fit is seen as fostering healthy psychological and social development. It is tied to positive self-esteem, flexibility, an ability to accommodate, feelings of acceptance and belonging. In its original meaning, it referred to a child’s temperament/personality being compatible with his or her parents’ personalities, attitudes, biases, and parenting practices. Later parenting literature has emphasized the importance of parents fostering a goodness-of-fit by their accommodating and working with the temperament/personality of their child.

A poorness-of-fit can lead to a number of consequences for a child, for implied in the parent’s reaction is a strong judgmental message that something is “wrong” with the child, rather than there is something “wrong” with the congruence between them. Responding to this negative message, a child may react in ways detrimental to healthy psychological development including: feeling that he/she is always the problem or always causing a problem, loss of flexibility in response to others, consistently feeling like an outsider and/or a troublemaker. At some point there can be increasing tension between parent and child as the poorness-of-fit leads to behavioral problems and a developing vicious cycle of negative interaction. For example, a shy or inhibited child who becomes even more withdrawn when the parent reacts by lecturing or shaming the child, leads to increased negativity between parent and child which feeds into increased withdrawal by the child.

Sometimes the child, feeling the lack of congruence, adapts to conform to the “fit” - at the expense of potential. Some examples of particularly damaging styles between a parent and child are: a risk-taking child with a fearful parent; a high-energy child with a depressed parent; an independent child with a controlling parent; a timid child with an aggressive parent.

To further understand the complexity of the interaction between child and parent, the following is a brief discussion of what researchers mean by “temperament.”

Temperament is seen as a biological potential for behavior, expressed by the predominant moods of individuals and the intensity of their activities. The concept of temperament is generally used in research with infants and very young children and relates to individual differences in characteristic patterns of infant behavior and responsiveness, particularly in the following areas of: 

infant sociability, ranging from high sociability - meaning enjoying and appreciating the company of others to low sociability – meaning withdrawing and avoiding contact with others.

levels of activity, referring to customary levels of physical movement, energy, vigor and speed expended by a child.

positive and negative emotionality, with positive referring to the capacity to be actively and positively involved with the world around them and negative associated with a propensity to experience feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness and behaviors like restlessness, anger and depression.

positive and negative reactivity defined as how the child responds to new people and unfamiliar situations.

A temperament trait does not necessarily derive from only one genetic characteristic but is often the result of a complex interplay of multiple factors. For example, an infant isn’t born exhibiting an innate temperament of positive emotionality. Instead, the temperament trait evolves from a core tendency toward positive emotionality reinforced by more subtle physiological tendencies such as sensitivity to touch and sound, physical agility, muscle tone and degree of alertness.

Researchers agree that the early development of temperament is the result of subtle interactions between the biology of infants and their caregivers. It is not nature versus nurture but nature and nurture interacting in reciprocal ways to evolve into specific patterns of existence. The manner in which an infant processes a sensation and/or an experience and responds accordingly will influence the adult’s reactions to the infant, which in turn initiates a new series of responses in the infant. In other words, infants are not just passive receivers but play an active part in the development and enfolding of their own temperaments. This pattern of reciprocity remains active throughout a child’s development.

As the child reaches a higher level of maturity, researchers begin to use “personality” or “personality traits” to refer to inherent characteristics. These words refer to a complex pattern of psychological characteristics and behaviors expressed across time and in many different situations. They encompass a broader range of behaviors and emotions that take into account the child’s initial temperament and the process of maturation. As children develop more sophisticated motor and cognitive skills, expand their use of language and increase their capabilities, they develop and express new personality traits. The evolution of an individual’s original temperament into a later more differentiated personality is a dynamic process with each stage of a child’s development offering new possibilities for the emergence of new traits.

The nature of the fit between individuals and their environment is not limited to parent/child interactions. There can also be a goodness- versus poorness-of-fit between an individual and his or her extended family members and/or the practices and beliefs of his or her family’s culture or group. The initial sense of fit that the child experiences with a parent is often perpetrated in school experiences, social groups and professional choices.

There is something you can do to counter the effects of having a history of being caught in a poorness-of-fit. Begin to understand the nature of your original childhood fit by looking for the existence of conflicts in current interactions between your basic personality/emotional nature and that of your parents. Since these characteristics tend to remain stable over time, who you are and who your parents are now can act as a guide to the nature of the fit when you were a child. Stories about you as a child can also offer clues as to the fit.

Gaining some sense of the nature of the fit and the way you responded to it as a child offers you an opportunity to take some action to counteract a way of being that has been detrimental. For example, if you were caught in a negative congruence between your inherent sense of independence and your parents’ need to control you, do you say “No” (either explicitly or implicitly) to all suggestions by others -- or even by you to yourself. An exercise I use when working with individuals caught in this poorness-of-fit is: extend each arm out to the side with your right arm acting the part that is in control (the parent); Right arm says, “UP” – Left arm (you the child) goes down. Right arm says “IN” – Left arm stays out. Right arm says “DOWN” – Left arm goes up. Which arm is in control? As long as the left only acts in opposition to the commands of the right, it is still caught in a controlling situation. The object is to free the left arm so that it evaluates the reasons for a movement and experiences true choice.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever and will include strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey and that all future interactions between you and others offer you a consistent goodness-of-fit.

 

Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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