Q: I think I read in one of your articles that sometimes parents and their kids might not “fit” with their temperaments. I think I have a bad fit with my 4-year- old son, because he’s driving me crazy. He reacts to loud noises and any excitement going on in our house, or just about anywhere. We’re a very busy family with three kids, with lots of activity, people coming and going, but it seems everything gets his behavior over the top, making him grumpy and whiny. Please help with suggestions.

A: I can empathize very well, as I’m sure many other parents can. Having raised a son very similar to yours, I understand how challenging it can be to disengage, to calmly address the behavior. The concept of “fit,” about which you’ve previously read, speaks to how well a parent’s temperament meshes with her child’s particular personality. This is considered a very critical dynamic in a child’s development, particularly in preventing any long-term emotional imbalances. Although you clearly have a more “spirited” child, there are certainly other temperamental traits that create a “poor fit” between parent and child. A slow-to-warm child (typically labeled shy!) often irritates a very social, easily engaged parent, who expects much the same ease from her child. It’s clear many parents and their children don’t necessarily “fit” together for a number of reasons. There are other clashes as well, although to your question, we’re focusing on a more challenging, highly sensitive child.

In studies conducted by Drs. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, Dr. Thomas noted, “Sometimes a parent may not recognize the unique temperamental features of his child and may persist in demanding other behavior.” Your son’s intolerance to loud sounds and excitement, with him easily becoming overstimulated, is due to his low sensory threshold. This manifests in his behavior in an active, noisy household. In return, you feel irritated with an unhappy, grumpy child. It’s certainly not easy, and often quite frustrating. Drs. Thomas and Chess identified nine behavioral traits that they concluded characterize a child’s basic temperament, which, combined with environment, ultimately help create the child’s personality. The nine traits: 1) activity level; 2) regularity or rhythmicity; 3) approach or withdrawal (comfort or “slow to warm up” with new situations); 4) adaptability; 5) sensory threshold; 6) quality of mood; 7) intensity of reaction; 8) distractibility; 9) attention span and persistence. Score these traits using 1 to 5 (from low at 1 to increasing intensity with 5).

Learning more about your son’s temperamental profile will be extremely helpful. When you see that this is who your child is, prepare him for what to expect whenever possible, which is essential to your well-being and to his. Sometimes, unintentionally, we put our children in situations where it’s impossible for them to cope successfully. Our expectations are unrealistic, with the confluence of factors leaning heavily towards disaster. Behavior will always tell us whether our child is in balance or is emotionally struggling, with his temperament framing how his behavior will indicate this. Two children the same age can react totally differently to the same situation, with one barely noticing noise and activity, while the other (your son and mine) is overstimulated, “melting down.” I’m not suggesting that temperament is the only factor potentially triggering difficult behavior, as we must consider parenting, family dynamics, and the environment, to name a few elements. For the sake of your question, I’m addressing temperament to understand the how of behavior, your child’s particular reactions, given there are nine criteria to consider

If we expect our child to flourish, we must look at stimulation levels, coupled with the amount of space he has for movement. Choosing familiar versus unfamiliar environments when possible, planning appropriate activities, and predicting his reactions in order to circumvent problems whenever you can are all integral to your “survival kit.” When equipped with the knowledge that our children are likely to react in certain ways, we are then in a stronger position to anticipate difficulties, thus avoiding situations that may overly burden our child. Try starting each day considering how you can help your spirited son be successful (reframe “focusing on how to make him behave or how to survive” to “how to thrive”). Reflect on when, where, and what are your tough times, assessing how you can best predict your child’s reaction. You can then better manage stressful times to diffuse, or hopefully prevent, challenging behavior. Ask your child what he needs when he’s feeling overstimulated (flooded with emotions). Although he’s very young, it’s not too early to begin identifying cues that will help him manage his intensity. Working together on how to create a comfortable/manageable environment, as well as supporting him with strategies for coping, builds on his strengths.

No matter what our child’s temperament is, none of this should be used as an excuse to prevent him from developing socially acceptable behavior. The challenge to parents, it seems, is learning to accept the particular way a child adjusts without either blaming yourself or detaching yourself emotionally from your child. Having a road map to the basic temperament of the child has helped so many parents find their way. Fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride. There’s a delightful, curious, fun, lovable child beyond all the challenges!

Try following these five simple steps for POWER:
1. Predict reactions
2. Organize the setting
3. Work together (parent & child)
4. Enjoy the rewards
5. Refuel

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