My Child’s Temperament and My Own Temper
How temperament can shape parenting and children’s responses to stress.
Posted December 11, 2019
My research since grad school has focused on children’s temperament, and it’s one of my favorite things to talk with parents about.
Temperament refers to children’s individual differences in their emotional and behavioral reactions to their experiences, and their ability to regulate those reactions. There is robust evidence showing that children who tend to react to things with negative emotions more often or more intensely and who have trouble regulating those reactions are more vulnerable. They tend to react more negatively to experiences of stress, adversity or problematic parenting behaviors. Those children are generally more likely to develop social, emotional or behavioral problems. However, in contexts that are not characterized by stress, adversity or negative parenting, those children can do just fine.
Some children have stronger fearful or anxious reactions to experiences, while others might be more easily frustrated. Some tend to navigate situations relatively unfazed or are more skillful at regulating and recovering from their emotional reactions. Some children experience great joy and excitement in reaction to their experiences, and some so much so that they have trouble managing their impulses.
I started doing research on children’s temperament to increase understanding about differences in children’s reactions to stress and parenting, and in particular, how temperament can also be challenging for parents and elicit more negative parenting behaviors. But this all became very real for me when I became a mom. My three children are all very temperamentally different, and even now in their teen years, I am constantly amazed at how differently I need to parent them to support their well-being and success.
Last night, I had yet another frustrating interaction with my son, who tends to be one of those easily frustrated kids. It reminded me of a story I often tell. Once when my son had asked for something, I don’t remember what, and I said no, he stormed down the hallway grumbling and stomping, went in his room, and slammed the door. I was so frustrated with his response that I stomped down the hall, opened the door, and yelled, “you’re not allowed to slam the door!” And then I slammed the door. (I guess we know where he gets it – temperament is genetic.). As I stood in the hall with my hand on the doorknob, completely recognizing that I had just yelled and slammed the door, he yelled through the shut door, “you just slammed the door, Mom!”
I’ve long recognized the need to build my own emotion regulation abilities, and have relied to a large extent on mindfulness practices to support my parenting, both to manage my emotions and to answer puzzling questions about what will be most effective for supporting my children’s well-being and positive development when each one needs something different. My go-to: deep breath in, long slow breath out.
In our research, we’ve been developing and evaluating a parenting program infused with mindfulness-based emotion regulation practices to support parents’ effective parenting and their own well-being and to help them access their own wisdom in effectively parenting with their children’s temperament in mind. This work is on-going but it is showing promising results.
Our key takeaways from years of research on parenting children with different temperament characteristics are:
- Parenting is not one-size-fits-all, and children both elicit and respond to parenting very differently.
- We can tailor our parenting around our children’s temperament to support their well-being.
- Through it all, parents can cultivate their ability to stay calm and parent on.
Kiff, C., Lengua, L. J., & Zalewski, M. (2011). Nature and nurturing: Parenting in the context of children’s temperament. Journal of Clinical Child and Family Review, 14, 251-301.
Lengua, L. J., & Wachs, T. D. (2012). Temperament and Risk: Resilient and Vulnerable Responses to Adversity. In M. Zentner & R. Shiner (Eds.), The Handbook of Temperament. Guilford Press. pp. 519-540
Lengua, L. J., Gartstein, M. A., Prinzie, P. (2018). Tempearment and personality trait development in the family. In Handbook of Personality, p. 201.