Q: I don’t get how my kids can be so different from me and my husband. Well, one of our boys is a bit like my husband, but the other two (boy and girl) have personalities that are totally different. I get frustrated, and pretty angry at times. I can’t believe how much their behavior always seems intentionally trying to get to me, to make me mad. I never would have dreamed of acting like they do when I was a child. My parents would not have tolerated what they do. Some advice or information please!

A: I understand how difficult parenting can be when temperaments are so different. Our assumptions and expectations are constantly challenged when our children don’t behave the way we want. You aren’t alone, as there are many parents who feel frustrated at times by the poor fit between their children’s temperaments and their own. 

We’re able to see temperament within hours after birth, with parents describing their babies as easygoing, sensitive, skittish, or easily upset. Researchers have found that the changes in temperament that occur as an infant develops are usually subtle and in response to the parents’ temperaments.

In each child’s development, at least as important as temperament is the match between that temperament and those of the parents, other family members, and teachers. Some parents who were very “slow to warm up” (typically described as “shy”) as children and have overcome that have considerable trouble if they have a child who is “shy.” Quiet, low-key parents who have an active, intense child may find this hard to deal with as well.

One study described a hypothetical situation of a very active “tomboy” living on a rural farm with several older brothers, versus the same active child growing up in a small city apartment with older parents while attending a highly structured private school. The former girl would likely fit in well, while the latter one would probably be labeled “hyperactive” within a week. 

Some suggestions and information to help reduce the stress you’re experiencing with this kind of temperament clash:

Rather than being surprised that your child is not like you or your husband, try to accept the differences. The New York Longitudinal Study, conducted by Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, measured the fit between children’s temperaments and those of their parents, finding that only about 50 percent had a spontaneously good fit. “Another 25 percent or so asked for some professional help adjusting to their child and were quickly able to make things better,” said Dr. Chess, child psychiatrist and co-director of the study. “The remaining 25 percent were unable to have a good fit; however, this didn’t always result in behavior problems on the part of the child.”

Try to appreciate the unique qualities of your child. Consider your feelings about him/her. Do you see your child as an extension of yourself who should, therefore, be like you? 

Be flexible about your children’s behavior. When introducing them to new situations and new people, be mindful about their differences from you and from their siblings. Whatever approach your parents used with you may not work with the particular temperamental style that your own children have.

Try not to take your child’s temperament personally, viewing it as a reflection on you as a parent or on something you may have done. When a parent personalizes the behavior, feeling victimized, there’s trouble. 

If you feel things are getting out of control, or your child is out to get you, get some help with outside child care, even if just for an hour or two each day. 

Managing temperamental behavior will be your key to understanding, following these steps:

Think temperament: Ask yourself if the behavior is attributable to one of the areas that’s difficult for your child, as opposed to their being manipulative, developmental or emotional.

Accept and disengage: Shift your perception from “Why does she/he always do this to me?” to “This is how my child is. How can I help her/him?”

Reflect — Talk about it: Describe to your child exactly what you see without criticism or judgment, such as: “You’re having a hard time dealing with all the noise and activity this morning.”

Share a story about yourself: “I usually have a hard time with noise and lots of activity when I first wake up.”

Offer a choice or release: Allow your child to be her/himself: “I understand how badly you want to leave. Would you like to play quietly in the next room until I’m done or sit here until the break?”

Anticipate: Get acquainted with your child’s temperamental profile, so you can talk about it and plan ahead for success.

It’s important to engage support with someone who doesn’t share the emotional investment. Otherwise, the conflict can escalate, with chronic power struggles. We must remember that being different does not translate to being abnormal. 

As Kahlil Gibran poetically said:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

“You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls.

“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. 

“You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

“For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

“The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far. 

“Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”