Temperament & Your Child
Predicting Your Child’s Future: Success or Struggles
Most parents wonder and worry about their children’s future. Most would love to be able to predict if they will be successful. Parents hope and believe being a good parent and providing many opportunities for growth is all they can do. Today research is providing predicting possibilities that go far beyond hope and make predicting part of our science.
We have known that some children struggle and suffer, but we are now delving into the whys and their significance. There are important variables that influence children’s inclinations, strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and competences. Knowing these leads us to the predilections for success or struggles and helps you as a parent to best plan what your child needs to become a success in life.
Everyone knows the story of people who rise from poverty, a toxic family life, substandard education and poor opportunities, but despite all, they succeed.
We also have observed children with all the advantages who still struggle. For them success seems always out of reach. Why?
Resiliency is the reason. Research shows that resiliency is the process of children interacting with their environments and staying afloat in the face of adversity. Children possess strengths that can promote well-being and protect them against the influence of risk factors. These protective factors create resilience and success in children. If one or all of these protective factors are weak or missing, the child struggles and suffers.
These protective factors can include positive temperament traits, superior cognitive ability, and/or strong families, peers, schools and communities.
Resilience is the positive capacity of children to cope with stress and adversity. Adverse circumstances may be chronic and consistent or severe and infrequent. Some children who have “at risk” protective factors don’t struggle unless significant adversity strikes. This is the reason that some children who seem balanced and without struggles react in unexpected and disturbing ways when faced with a stress factor, such as the divorce of their parents. Other children with at risk protective factors respond with behavioral problems when they are minimally stressed. An example is the 4-year-old with frequent meltdowns.
Children must draw upon all of their resources: temperament traits, cognitive skills, and environmental resources to counter stress successfully.
Three main variables that make up our resilience protective factors are:
(inborn personality traits )
Temperament traits are present at birth and stable by 18 – 24 months. There are four behavioral temperament trait drivers, three learning drivers and two modifier traits. These traits function by helping us remember, control our impulses, solve problems, understand social interaction, complete a task, cooperate, and respond to the daily events. These traits are stable throughout our lives but can be modified with training. An example is how we respond to something new. Some of us are curious and like experiences that are new, but others are cautious and prefer not to be challenged by anything new. Some adapt quickly, others slowly. Some of us have energy to spare and some do not. These traits form the hard wiring for the brain and determine how it functions. The easy child has more positive temperament traits.
Cognitive abilities are inherited and represent our genetically determined abilities and limitations that are possessed at birth. Cognitive abilities are at the foundation of the learning process, and a child’s upper limits of ability are defined by inheritance. How successfully we perform at those upper limits is determined by other elements. Cognitive abilities include our ability to analyze, evaluate, retain information, recall experiences, make comparisons, and determine action. Cognitive weaknesses diminish a child’s capacity to learn and, fortunately, cognitive skills can be improved with training.
The higher the cognitive ability the more protection is displayed when a child faces adversity and stress.
A child’s environment is very important to growth and reaching maximal capabilities. The environment is family, neighborhood (peers) city, state and country. During the first five years both the family and daycare are the dominate influence on the environment as an asset or a liability. The more nurturing bestowed on a child, the more assets are added for that child. A nurturing environment enhances cognitive development and social integration.
Examples of liabilities in the environment include poor parenting, financial difficulty, abuse, chaotic home, or a dangerous neighborhood.
The more positive the variable, the more resilience a child contains. Resilience equals success, less resilience leads to struggles.
Many parents are so invested in their children’s succeeding that they overlook signs of struggles and suffering that indicate less resilience and need for help. Many excuse their child’s struggles as a phase, going through a rough time, or other external forces, and fail to get help. There are differences in developmental time tables between children but educators recognize this normal variation. If your child’s teacher is concerned, those problems need to be addressed.
It is easier to understand how cognitive ability and the family structure affect our children. If either of these protective factors is weak, that child will struggle. Temperament traits are less well understood by most. A child who has temperament traits at risk, but is cognitively gifted and has a supportive positive family often struggles and suffers. Let us explore the temperament trait characteristics that lead to resilience or nonresilience.
• Easy, requires little of your time
• Goes with the flow regardless of changes, she/he seems content
• Finishes tasks, will plug away until a task is successfully completed
• Positive, glass half full type child
• Curious, seems eager to explore new things
• Calm, is able to calm her/himself without a lot of effort
• Able to control her/his emotions
• Not easy = requires a lot of your time.
• Resist change = seems to be your resistant child, prone to meltdowns.
• Doesn’t respond well to demands or surprises, locks up or melts down.
• Super cautious, new people, places, activities are resisted.
• Supersensitive, requires quick attention to anything too tight, scratchy, hot/cold, smelly, painful.
• Less sensitive, has difficulty with others’ personal space, feelings, less bothered by pain.
• Fails to finish tasks or becomes easily overwhelmed by a task and may be struggling in school.
• Has difficulty calming her/himself.
• Reacts in a glass half-empty response, complains often.
Obviously children are not one or the other but a combination. How can you predict if your child will have success or struggles? (See chart below.)
• SUCCESSFUL CHILD
Strong cognitive skills, no temperament traits at risk and a supportive/stable environment
ONE variable either cognitive, temperament or environment at risk for struggles
• STRUGGLING CHILD who may fail if not helped
TWO variables either cognitive, temperament or environment at risk for struggles
STRUGGLING CHILD who is likely to fail if not helped
ALL variables of cognitive, temperament and environment are at risk
Here is a case history of a child with positive cognitive skills and a strong family but temperament traits at risk:
Joshua is a 6-year-old boy who has shown increasing trouble at school and at home. His parents are attentive and provide many opportunities. He makes good enough grades but quietly resists all requests and demands from teachers. He complains incessantly and has many preferences that must be carried out or he “blows a gasket.” He refuses all things he is not familiar with and has eaten the same food for lunch for the past 2½ years. He has only one friend, states he doesn’t care to socialize with others, and prefers to play in quiet pursuits. He is manipulative and stubborn. He seems to have difficulty following through and finishing work.
This child is obviously suffering, struggling and needs professional help.
What can be done to help children who are struggling? First, realize that your child needs help to identify the exact causes for the struggles. Seek help for your child and you to create the actions required to strengthen the protective factors that are weak and make success more likely. Knowing your child’s strengths and weaknesses and realistically assessing them aids you in being the best parent you can be. You are helping your child prepare for the long-term successes of adulthood.
Robert J. Hudson, MD, FAAP, “Dr. Bob,” is a clinical professor of Pediatrics at the OU School of Community Medicine and the Co-Director of the Center for Resilience and Development.