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Anger Management: Understanding Your Temperament

"Each of us is born into the world as someone; we spend the rest of our lives trying to find out who."
– Dean Homer and Peter Copeland,
Living with Our Genes

Lori didn't get it. Weren't all kids supposed to like to go to the park? But when she suggested an outing to her son, David, he'd burst into tears. He didn't want to go. Or if they were out running errands and she suggested that they stop at the library to get a few books, David would insist on going home. Lori loved spontaneity, but with David everything had to be planned or he had a fit. David had reacted this way practically since day one. They were so different, and it was often those differences that got them into power struggles.

Sometimes, however, it was their similarities that got them into trouble. Take the grocery store. Lori hated buying groceries. The smells in the deli department repulsed her, and the lighting was awful. Before she finished shopping, her head would be pounding from the glare. Moving through the store, she seemed to "suck in" the moods of other shoppers. She knew immediately who was in a big hurry, and when someone was impatient with a clerk, she felt their words like a physical blow. It took every ounce of self-control she had to make it through the grocery store, and, inevitably, that's when David would lose it because he, too, went nuts with all of the stimulation. She'd try to stay calm and soothe him, but if he continued to be upset more than a few minutes, she'd find herself ready to scream, as well.

And David didn't give up. Of course, neither did she. They could debate for fifteen minutes whether there was enough syrup on the pancakes or not, and by then the breakfast was cold. If he asked for a cookie at eight a.m. and she told him he had to wait for lunch, he'd ask her again fifty times if it was lunchtime yet.

In her dreams, before David was born, she'd imagined sitting quietly by the fire reading to her child. In reality she spent hours chasing after him. He didn't want to be cuddled, except at bedtime for just a few minutes. Even then he often jumped in and out of her lap. The power struggles seemed inevitable. What she liked, he hated. What bothered her set him off, too. And no matter what, they both wanted to win!

Understanding Temperament
Variety, that's what makes life rich, and when it comes to people, Mother Nature has provided us with a smorgasbord of styles. The challenge is to enjoy those styles rather than let them pull us into power struggles. Even at birth infants express their individuality. Some babies vigorously cycle their arms and legs and let loose with lusty, expressive cries. Others watch intently, slowly cycling their limbs or letting out a mere whimper to indicate their discomfort.

Thanks to new studies on identical twins reared apart, genetics research, molecular biology, and neuroscience, we now know that many of our personality traits are the result of our genetic makeup. Researchers call this inborn dimension of personality "temperament."

Temperament describes how we perceive the world and our first and most natural responses to those perceptions. It includes how sensitive we are, how we react to new things, our activity level, intensity, persistence, and how easily we shift from one thing to another.

Temperament is not learned from parents or books, nor can the traits be easily controlled through willpower alone. A baby doesn't decide to be active or inactive; she just is. A child doesn't choose to feel the seam in his sock and experience shivers down his spine as a result; it just happens. It's part of who he is, just like the color of his eyes or hair.

Why Temperament Is Important
Temperament is one of the real fuel sources that may lie behind the power struggles you are experiencing with your child. By his very nature, your child may be slow to adapt. If that's true, the odds are that he hates surprises of any kind, and shifting from one thing to another is so distressing that you end up in power struggles. If you're quick to adapt, you don't even notice transitions. Switching plans or stopping one thing and starting another is no big deal. Your child's reaction to change can drive you nuts. Or, if you're like Lori and David, and you're both highly sensitive, then lights, smells, sounds, and emotions can easily overwhelm you, making it that much tougher to keep your cool and stay connected. By understanding temperament, you will be better able to:

  • Understand the emotions you and your child are experiencing, like the deep distress experienced by a slow-to-adapt child when she has to leave her friend's house, or the exhaustion of the active child who's been forced to sit still for long periods of time.
  • Predict potential "triggers" – the things that set both of you off.
  • Select the most effective strategies to help you to eliminate or minimize those triggers.
  • Maximize the pleasures and reduce the frustrations of working with your child.
  • Reduce the number of visits to your pediatrician because you understand what's "normal" for your child and therefore worry less.
Finally, understanding temperament allows you to stop trying to change your child or yourself, and instead find ways to work together and enjoy each other more.

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From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.

Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.


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