Why is caring for your 9-month-old infant so draining that you stagger through the day, while caring for your sister’s baby is smooth sailing?
Why does your friend’s 6-year-old throw noisy temper tantrums, while your own makes a fast and cheerful set of adaptations?
Why is one of your teen-age sons persistent in studying and doing projects, while the other works in short spurts and is diverted by his friends’ bantering?
Most children and adults master the trials of daily living while others, even those without psychiatric problems, fail to meet the same demands at home, at school, with peers and at work. Mental health professionals try to understand why we have such behavioral differences, and to determine interventions that will eliminate, or at least reduce, problems in functioning.
A New Understanding
Three decades ago, we blamed self-defeating behaviors on early life experiences, particularly maternal ones. Eliminating such behaviors meant rigorously exploring these early experiences. But we now can see that these answers, while simple, are inaccurate.
We know now that early experiences do not have irreversible psychological effects. At any age, life changes can lead to major behavioral changes. At the same time, many influences other than early childhood affect development. Temperament is one such influence.
We can divide the roots of behavior into three categories: 1) Motives (the”why”); 2) Capacities (the “what” or “how well”); and 3) Temperamental style (the “how”) with which people go through their daily actions.
Recently, there has been renewed interest in children’s temperament. Understanding it can help us treat a range of behavior and conduct disorders. Its predictive ability can even help us prevent them. For example, children with the cluster of temperamental factors that make up the “difficult child” seem to be more likely to develop a behavior disorder than is any other group.
Researchers Stella Chess, M.D., and Alexander Thomas, M.D., see temperament as only one important ingredient of personality. Although in infancy it may be the main expression, soon other developmental advances influence personality formation.
Chess and Thomas have found that several factors combine with temperament to shape personality throughout childhood and adult life. They are:
4. Support network;
5. Self-esteem; and
6. Chance events.
The ‘Goodness of Fit’ Model
Chess and Thomas’s studies of pathological and normal development have led them to a “goodness of fit” model as a way to analyze interactions between children and parents and between the child and the larger environment. The model also considers individual developmental patterns.
According to this model, healthy development and functioning occur when the child’s temperament is compatible with the demands of the environment. In turn, psychological functioning suffers with incompatibility and poorness of fit. When this happens, the child may develop a behavior disorder.
Examples of poor fit could be expecting your highly active daughter to sit through dinner without interruption or telling your slow-to-warm-
up son to greet a guest immediately. Ignoring these children’s temperamental qualities and expecting them to function in ways that they cannot may lead to behavior disorders.
If your daughter has a low stimulation threshold, insisting that she wear tight or scratchy clothing may exaggerate her natural temperament. This conflict may seem minor, but such confrontations can become a regular source of exasperation for you both and may lead to your daughter developing a behavior disorder.
Instead, keep your children’s temperament in mind as you make rules for the family. Let your son wait until he’s more at ease with the stranger; allow your daughter to wear something comfortable. Recognizing and respecting individual temperaments can go a long way in avoiding unnecessary conflict and eventual behavior disorders.