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Why Your Child Loses It: Understanding Your Child's Temperament

"Children are to be discovered as well as shaped."
– Dean Homer,
Living with Our Genes

When Amanda was a child, the annual visit to the haunted house was a family tradition she eagerly looked forward to. Now she was thrilled that her daughter, six-year-old Corrine, was finally old enough to enjoy it with her.

Ever since she could remember, Corrine had heard the stories of the haunted house and had eagerly awaited participating in the adventure. But now that she was here, in the dark depths of the house, she wasn't sure if she liked all of the scary puppets and noises. She held her mother's hand firmly. Ahead of them rose a slimy, bumpy monster on the wall. A deep voice invited passerby to touch it. Her mother reached out to it and squealed with delight as the monster grazed her fingertips. Corrine held back. Her mother invited her toward it. Corrine yanked away. People behind them pressed forward, reaching to run their hands over the monster's back. They giggled and shrieked as the sensations teased their fingertips. Again, Amanda tried to convince Corrine to touch the monster, but once more she pulled back. It was then that the crowd pushed them into the room of mirrors, followed by the row of coffins with tops that creaked on rusty hinges and headless corpses that rose from their depths.

Finally they stepped out into the light. Corrine sighed with relief. Her mother noticed it and turned to look at her. Corrine wasn't smiling. Instead, she appeared to be in deep thought. When Amanda asked Corrine what she was thinking about, she simply shrugged. In the past, Amanda would have brushed past the moment and left, but that was before she knew about temperament. Now she stopped, looked carefully at Corrine, and said, "I think you're trying to figure out how you feel right now. The look on your face makes me wonder if something upset you?" Corrine nodded.

Knowing that a trigger trait for Corrine was her cautious first reaction, Amanda continued. "New situations often make you feel uncomfortable. Was there something you're thinking you wanted to do that you didn't do because you weren't comfortable yet?" Once again Corrine nodded. "Do you want to go back inside?" Amanda guessed. Tears rolled from the corner of Corrine's eyes. "I wanted to touch the wall," she whispered. "I'll take you back and stay right with you, if you want to try," Amanda offered. And so they did. It wasn't as crowded now. Corrine could stand and scrutinize the wall carefully.

While Corrine stood there, her mother brushed her own hand across the wall and described the sensations to Corrine. "It looks wet, but it's not. It's just shiny," she explained. "You'd think it was cold, but it's actually warm. The texture is rough, but it doesn't hurt my fingers." And then she stopped and waited. Cautiously, Corrine reached out. Quickly she touched one finger to the wall. A huge smile shattered the frown on her face and then she giggled as she placed her entire hand on the wall.

Amanda grinned with pure joy and relief. Before she learned about temperament she hadn't understood Corrine's reaction, and too many outings had turned into huge power struggles. Now things were different.

Goodness of Fit
When you understand your own temperament and your child's, you can more accurately identify the feelings and needs each of you is experiencing. You're not left in the dark, mystified as to what's happening. You know yourself and your child, and it's that knowledge that allows you to identify the emotions and choose a more sensitive and effective response. Ultimately, it's what Drs. Stella Chess and Alex Thomas call a "goodness of fit" between parent and child that allows you to understand each other's experiences and work with the emotions they garner. And as you make that connection, a whole new world can open up to you, one in which your differences actually enrich your life instead of irritate you.

Your Child's Temperament Profile
Since you already have a profile of your own temperament, let's create one for your child so that you can compare the two. When you and your child share similar temperament traits, the things that trigger your child may also trigger you. You need to know that. But when your child is very different from you, she may be experiencing emotions and sensations that you are not aware of. You need to know that, too. An understanding of temperament allows you to predict your child's typical reaction and makes it much easier for you to monitor your child's emotions and pick up cues before he loses it.

As you review the traits, remember there isn't a right or wrong answer, a good or a bad trait. You simply want to create a profile of your child's first and natural response.

  • Review the following statements for each of the seven temperament traits. Think about your child's typical reactions. Which of them fit him or her best?
  • Remember there are no right or wrong answers. Every trait has its strengths and weaknesses. Our goal is to gain an understanding of the child who has come to live with you.


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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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