Working with Challenging Child Temperaments

Working with Challenging Child Temperaments

Some kids are naturally easy-going, adaptable, and cheerful. Sure, they’ll still cry if the ice cream falls off their cone, but in general, they have the sort of temperament that makes a parent’s job considerably easier: they trot into preschool with no clinging to mom or dad at the door, and if their favorite sweatshirt is in the wash, it’s no big deal to put on a different one. They can sit quietly for fairly long periods and settle down quickly if they get excited or mad, and if they can’t build their block structure just right, they don’t knock it over out of frustration.

On the other hand, probably at least a third of all children depart dramatically from this profile, and it’s usually quite clear by the child’s first or second birthday. Most of these kids fit one these patterns:

  • Cautious/Rigid – Slow to warm to new situations, people, or activities. Sometimes strong attachment to objects (like favorite articles of clothing) or routines. Wary of separating from familiar caregivers. Often have intense fears (e.g., dogs, loud noises, or darkness).
  • Spirited – High activity level, and rev up quickly. Look for things that are new and exciting. May have short attention span or difficulty listening. Physically bold, risk-taking, even aggressive. Intense, dramatic, fill the room with their energy.

These children bring special gifts to their families, like helping their parents really pay attention to family routines (cautious kids), or livening up otherwise stuffy occasions (spirited ones). Nonetheless, they can understandably be more stressful to raise, especially if their disposition tends toward the high end of either type.

A cautious or spirited temperament has consequences for the child as well, often leading to more difficulties with other children, problems in childcare or school, and conflicts with parents. To help yourself and your child, here are some approaches – on a foundation of loving nurturance and appropriate parental authority that we’ve seen work in numerous families – many of which are useful for more easygoing kids as well:

  • Have extra compassion for your child and yourself
  • Nurture more than ever
  • Provide lots of structure
  • Teach skills
  • Optimize the child’s physiology
  • Get support

Have Extra Compassion for Your Child and Yourself

There’s a saying that parents of one child think that their child’s disposition is all about “nurture,” while parents of two or more kids think it’s much more about “nature” – because they see how different two children can be who are raised in much the same environment. A child’s temperament – those stable tendencies in how he feels, reacts to situations, or sees the world – is biologically determined, and it’s often obvious within a few months – or hours! – after his birth. For example, our first child, Forrest, stayed awake for several hours after he was delivered, looking around with interest, eager to interact, as if he were saying, Where’s the party?! Our second child, Laurel, came out, blinked, closed her eyes, and went back to sleep; her attitude seemed more like, This is OK, but I’m more interested in other things, and please don’t bother me. These fundamental approaches to life have persisted to this day. Both of our kids are happy and thriving. But they’re doing it in different ways.

It’s natural to view your child’s temperament as a reflection on you, as if it were a project that needs fixing, or a sign of willful disobedience. It’s also natural to feel disappointed in a child that hasn’t turned out to be what you thought you had bargained for. These feelings are often painful to acknowledge – yet if we shove them down, they don’t go away, and they inevitably leak out and the child can sense them. Like any difficult feeling, they’re best acknowledged to yourself and perhaps to others, and then – released and replaced with a more accepting, philosophical, and humorous attitude.

Meanwhile, try to remember that your child is more affected by her temperament than you are –  sometimes like the rider of a runaway horse. You can sometimes see that a child really wishes she could act differently, but she just can’t help it.

Certainly, a child needs guidance regardless of her temperament, and her parents need to provide sensible boundaries. Yet the foundation of all this has to be compassion from her parents, or she’ll feel in a deep place that there is something wrong with her essential nature. Besides being good for her, compassion calms you down and draws you into a less stressful place inside. It helps you feel more peaceful to see the strengths in her nature, particularly if her temperament is different from your own.

When the friction between you is at its worst, or other people are giving you The Look, it’s easy to think that her temperament is a kind of aberration from the ideal of the shiny happy child. But it’s important to keep in mind that there is a wide range of temperaments for very good reason: until recently, humans lived – and mated – mainly in tribal groups, and those that contained a diversity of temperaments were generally more able to survive the diversity of problems that nature threw at them.. Every group – whether a Stone Age tribe or the board of a Fortune 500 corporation – needs people who are cautious, and others who are eager to take risks.

Finally, you deserve compassion, too, since no matter how much you cherish your child, her temperament still brings more stress and demands upon you. And, of course, try not to be hard on yourself because your child is cautious or spirited, nor rattled by the judgments or rolled eyes of others. If anything, you deserve extra kudos!

Nurture More Than Ever

A cautious or spirited child is bound to receive more correction, criticism, and scolding than one who is more easy-going. So he needs more nurturing from his parents, and other caregivers, in order to compensate.

Additionally, the degree of a child’s cautiousness or spiritedness is often intensified by a drop in nurturance, perhaps due to the arrival of a new baby, a change in sleeping arrangements, an entry into childcare or a new preschool, or changes in his parents’ work or their own relationship. By finding it within yourself to surge greater nurturance into your child, there will often be a pleasant easing of some of the extremes of temperament: less clinging, anxiety, and rigidity – or less jumpiness, distractibility, and intensity. Reasonably enough, you might fear that if you give your child more nurturance (sometimes framed as “giving in to his demands”), then he will just want more than ever. But in fact, your loving attention will help settle down his neediness, particularly if you also teach him how to take in good experiences and make them a lasting part of himself; he’ll be happier, and easier for your to raise. In essence, extra nurturance for a challenging child is an ounce of prevention that heads off a pound of trouble.

Provide Lots of Structure

Of course, being highly nurturing doesn’t mean letting a child walk all over you, or anyone else. Structure is reassuring, soothing the fears of both cautious and spirited children. While a cautious child looks more conspicuously fearful, a spirited child is often quite anxious behind his bravado, and common source of aggressiveness is that it is a way to manage fear.

Structure consists both of what you make sure is present in a child’s life as well as what is deliberately absent. In terms of what’s present, a consistent daily routine will help keep both spirited and cautious kids “inside the lines.” Your expectations for behavior should be clear, and kindly and consistently enforced. Try to be creative in your family’s structures, tailoring them to the unique needs of your child.

For example, since a spirited child is particularly prone to forgetfulness and disorganization – How many times do I have to tell you to get your lunchbox in the morning?! What, you’ve left your jacket at school again?! – try to provide forms of structure that simplify things and provide reminders. You could put a basket in her bedroom for dirty clothes rather than hope she’ll put them in the hamper – and he’ll probably turn it into a chance to shoot some hoops. Or take a snapshot of each of the basic steps in the morning routine – wash face, put away pajamas, put on clothes, eat breakfast, get jacket for trip to childcare, etc. – and glue them to a piece of poster board for a daily, visual checklist.

As to what you intentionally keep out of your child’s world, at the top of the list should be those things that exacerbate his or her temperamental tendencies. For example, alarming experiences can heighten the rigidities of a cautious child. Exposing a spirited child to violent stimuli – like many TV shows or video games – could fuel more aggression in him. Consider your child’s friends: do they bring out the best in your child, or those qualities that are most challenging for him – and you?

* * *

This article is adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S., and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.


Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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