All little ones are challenging at times, but some are challenging most of the time. According to research on temperament, roughly 10% of children fall into the “difficult or challenging” category. These children, on a consistent basis, tend to be highly reactive, unpredictable, emotional, inflexible, and frequently expressing a negative mood. As infants they’re often fussy and resist eating and sleeping routines. As toddlers, common behaviors like tantrums can be especially intense and prolonged.
Strengths of a Challenging Temperament
Because parenting or caring for a child with a challenging temperament can feel overwhelming, it may be hard to zero in on his strengths. But it’s one of the most important things you can do. With sensitive parenting and caregiving, children with challenging temperaments can learn to use their natural feistiness in positive ways. In fact, research shows that children with challenging temperaments are especially sensitive to parenting style. When they receive an authoritative parenting style (more on this below), they tend to do better cognitively, academically, and socially than children with easy temperaments.
How to Support a Child with a Challenging Temperament
In this article we talk about how essential it is to accept your child for who she is. You can’t change her temperament, but you can help her manage temperament-related challenges.
Here are few key ways to support a child with a challenging temperament:
Use positive, authoritative parenting — Research on parenting styles shows that a positive, authoritative approach helps children thrive in every area of life. Because little ones with challenging temperaments are more sensitive to parenting style, it’s especially important to avoid parenting styles that over-focus on rules while neglecting emotional connection. Balancing limit-setting with sensitivity is important for every child, but especially for those with challenging temperaments. Using strict, cold tactics is likely to backfire. Rather than trying to control your child’s behavior, guide it. When it feels hardest to connect with your child, that’s when he needs it the most.
Choose your battles — Little ones with a challenging temperament can make you feel like you’re constantly disciplining. Try to prioritize the behaviors you most want to modify (like aggression, for example) and ease off of others for now. Once you see change in your top concerns, focus on behaviors lower on the list.
Take a deep breath (or several) — The saying “don’t add fuel to the fire” is fitting when it comes to interacting with challenging temperaments. Remaining calm, neutral, and patient is hard, but it can diffuse your child’s emotions. If you’re caring for a fussy infant, these tips may be helpful.
Avoid negative labels — Because a challenging temperament is, well, challenging, it lends itself to negative labels. Try to catch yourself (or others) using negative labels to describe your child, and substitute more positive ones. In this popular book, the author suggests describing your challenging child as spirited. Other positive labels include energetic, assertive, and persistent. The idea is to keep a strengths-based perspective, which helps you, your child, and anyone else who cares for him remember that he is more than his challenges. Negative labels can harm your relationship with your little one, interfere with teaching him positive behavior skills and, over time, squash his self-esteem.
Your spirited child may be “more” than others, but with sensitive support during these early years he can learn how to manage his temperament and maximize his strengths.