Health Beat: Parent-child mismatch

Published 7:10 pm Friday, December 2, 2016

Have you ever met someone you don’t “click” with? Perhaps they’re very quiet and you’re outgoing, or they’re night owls, while you’re an early bird. Most of us manage these situations by overlooking the small stuff or avoiding people we don’t enjoy. What happens, though, if the person you don’t click with is your own child?

Parent-child temperament mismatches frequently cause behavior problems, especially in young children. One of the most commonly accepted temperament theories suggests three types of children: the easy kid, the difficult kid, and the fearful, slow-to-warm-up kid. Easy children have a naturally positive mood, eat and sleep at predictable times, and go with the flow in new situations; they don’t pose problems for most parents.

On the other hand, the “difficult” child has more sleep problems, gets irritated easily, is more distractible, and has trouble dealing with changes or tolerating frustration. Complaints and meltdowns are the norm; once upset, these kids are difficult to soothe.

The slow-to-warm-up child is not as outwardly contrary, but can still be hard to parent. These kids are shy, quiet, and fearful, taking longer to feel comfortable in new situations. They seem a bit unhappy, and even when they are, they don’t show it as readily. Such children can be hard to connect with, especially if they haven’t had time to feel at ease.

When a parent’s natural demeanor and parenting style don’t fit the child’s temperament, bonding suffers. The child may feel disliked or constantly criticized because their natural responses put parents off. The child develops behavior problems fueled by anger, anxiety or depression.

On the other hand, when children don’t react the way parents expect, parents may feel rejected or incompetent, finding it hard to enjoy the child’s company. In an effort to find something that works, they switch from one strategy to another, but the resulting inconsistency only makes behavior problems worse. Many get angry with this child who, frankly, acts like a brat.

If you find yourself in a mismatch with your child, try not to be discouraged, but understand that as the adult, you’re the one who’s going to have to make some changes. Consider which type your child seems to be, and then think about whether your “parenting personality” could complicate matters further. Work on strengthening the bond with a better understanding of your child’s needs.

For instance, even the easy child can cause problems if the parent’s temperament is too volatile or too reserved. If the parent is more high-strung, the laid-back kid can sometimes be a bit too easygoing for the parent’s taste. The easily annoyed parent will be bothered by small things that the kid couldn’t care less about, while the anxious parent may wish the child had higher standards or more drive. In a temperament mismatch, the parent’s personality is just as important as the child’s.

With more difficult children, you’ll have to take a hard look at your child’s needs and your typical approach. This temperament might pose a challenge, but if you pay attention, you can find things to ease your child’s way. If he is easily irritated, pay close attention to early signs of frustration and redirect before things get rough. If he doesn’t sleep regularly, at least build in a structured quiet time to give each of you a break. Make sure you prepare him for changes or challenges in advance when possible, with very clear expectations and incentives for appropriate behaviors.

With the slow-to-warm-up child, a slower pace takes care of many problems.

Understand that this child naturally needs time and space to evaluate a situation first, or he will feel overwhelmed. Again, advance preparation can be helpful when it is possible to do so.

Of course, these few general ideas won’t get you far if you have a serious mismatch with your child. If that’s the case, look for parenting resources about temperament and related parenting strategies. Most important, understand you won’t be able to change a child’s core personality, but it’s your job to teach him how to get along in the world. His first example will be his relationship with you, so make it a good one.

Tamara Stevens, MA, is a child psychologist with Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 252-946-4134.