How Do Kids Get Ahead, Get Along, and Keep It Under Control?

Thoughts on childhood personality and a new blog on adolescent leadership.

Posted Jul 12, 2019

Source: A3pfamily/Shutterstock

What is the key to our children and teenagers’ success? The ability to get ahead, get along, and keep it under control are fundamental attributes for adaptive human development. Whether in school, at home, in friendships, or—later in adolescence—in intimate relationships and workplace settings, these characteristics enable our children to thrive. As a researcher and clinical psychologist, these are also the questions that drive my work every day.

I’m a child clinical psychologist by training, and my formative undergraduate years were spent in two psychology research labs—one focusing on adult personality, and the other on childhood aggression. From early on, these topics seemed intricately linked to me—how can we understand why some kids are aggressive without understanding their personalities first? Since that time, most of my research has focused on this topic. What child personality traits underlie disruptive child and adolescent behaviors, not only aggression, but also delinquency, interpersonal antagonism (aka “being a jerk”), and other related problems?

An important part of the answer to this clinical question comes from our understanding of normal development. In other words, to understand why some kids develop problems, we also need to understand why others with the same background manage to avoid those problems—and may even flourish.

This contrast between normal, even successful, development and development that has gone awry is the foundation for the way I view clinical problems in children and adolescents. In the early research from my lab, we examined clinical problems of aggression, delinquency, and “being mean” through the lens of normal development. This dialectic is not a new one—many of our earliest theories of personality and personality development came from trained clinicians: Sigmund Freud and his academic descendants, Gordon Allport, Henry Murray, and many more personality scientists who were also clinically trained.

So how do we use the foundation of normally developing child and adolescent personality to understand clinical problems of aggression and delinquency? Let’s examine our fundamental questions.

How do children keep it under control?  

The development of self-control in children is perhaps the most widely studied topic in child personality research. The “marshmallow test” has entered popular vernacular, and researchers across many domains study youth personality traits that are fundamentally about self-control. If you’ve read recent news items about studies that measured children’s conscientiousness, impulsivity, ability to delay gratification, attention, self-discipline, effortful control, or “grit,” you’ve been reading about research that all falls under the same umbrella (despite researcher’s confusing insistence on giving the same personality trait many different names).

Self-control in children can take many forms, but broadly refers to regulating one’s self-focused behavior and impulses, even suppressing a dominant behavioral response (e.g., sneaking that cookie before dinner) to instead perform a subdominant behavioral response (following the house rule of “no sweets before dinner”). Self-control also includes the ability to pay attention, to follow rules, to think through behavior before acting, to achieve goals, and to persevere through unpleasant tasks or activities. Empirically speaking, scientific research tells us a lot about how children keep it under control. Above all, it tells us that being high in self-control helps children in many domains in life, including a lower likelihood of aggressive and delinquent behavior.

How do children get along?

The ability to get along with others—to follow social rules, to evidence positive interpersonal behaviors and values—is easily recognized as an adaptive trait. In personality psychology, this is usually studied via trait agreeableness, one of the traits in the widespread Big Five model of personality, although scientists may also examine related traits like antagonism, empathy, compassion, politeness, or altruism.

These are also the personality traits typically examined when researchers want to understand why kids or teens want to get along, although research with adults does not always translate directly to younger age groups. As an example, if I notice after dinner that my kids are putting the dishes in the dishwasher (after I blink a few times and quickly test the hypothesis of a true miracle), do I attribute these behaviors to their desire to be helpful (i.e., getting along) or their inclination to follow the rules (i.e., keeping it under control)? This can be harder to differentiate in kids than in adults, partly because kids have so many more rules to follow (I mean, just think about it. And give your kid an extra kiss tonight!).

Even so, kids who are higher in these tendencies to get along—kids who are more agreeable—also show a lower likelihood of aggression, delinquency, and being mean. (Which may all seem intuitive, although it’s not necessarily. Topics for a future post!)

How do children get ahead?  

Getting ahead—being successful, or thriving—is probably the most complicated of these characteristics to explain, particularly when looking at normally developing personality in children and teens. And this question—along with the challenges and mysteries it provokes—is the primary focus of my own research program, and indeed will hopefully represent a focus of the current blog.

First of all, it is difficult to define what we mean by “being successful”—research that focuses on adults “getting ahead” typically looks at leadership or achievement. However, these are very infrequently studied in youth, especially outside fairly obvious measures of achievement (e.g., grades). Yet, leadership skills and capacity surely emerge in early life. Furthermore, these more abstract indicators of “success” play a critical role in many central aspects of adolescent development (such as college admissions).

In adults, there are even personality traits that reflect differences in assertiveness and leadership (sometimes called “social dominance”), yet these are not well understood—or even identified—in children. In adults, even the personality trait of social dominance is controversial as it relates to disruptive or “jerky” behaviors, with some leading researchers arguing that higher social dominance is linked to more problematic behavior, and others arguing the opposite (my incredibly overly simplified summary of a very detailed, nuanced, and long-standing debate between some of the most brilliant and critical minds in our field).

In Search of Answers

So, how do we get closer to answering these fundamental questions: how do children get ahead, get along, and keep it under control? Even more specifically, how do we begin to understand leadership prior to adulthood? Do children, teens, and adults all “lead” in similar ways? Do paths to success look the same? Or are there important differences across development? Beyond better understanding the personality traits that help youth get along, get ahead, and keep it all under control, how are children’s personalities constrained—or facilitated—in ways that promote the most adaptive outcomes for each child?

These are the questions that I find way too exciting at 3 a.m. when I should rather be sleeping, that I scour the literature trying to answer, that I collect data trying to address, and that I am quite certain don’t have simple answers. I look forward to exploring these questions here, hopefully with company along the way (science, like life, is always better with company).