New Book Says Key to Positive Child/Caregiver Relationships is Understanding, Not Challenging, Child's Temperament

Any parent who has tried to soothe an inconsolable infant, control the obstinate behavior of a loud toddler, or encourage a shy preschooler to interact with schoolmates has probably wondered at some point: Is this normal behavior? For those parents, Dominican University of California faculty member Jan Kristal has a comforting message: Yes, it’s all perfectly normal – for that child.

The key to successful child rearing, Kristal explains, is to understand a child’s temperament in order to know how to work with that child’s behavioral style rather than struggle against it. In her new book, The Temperament Perspective, Working with Children’s Behavioral Styles (Brookes, 2005), Kristal weaves in her 16 years of research and clinical experience with more than 600 families to provide practical guidance which professionals and parents can use to peacefully co-exist with children. Kristal teaches classes in temperament and child behavior, and child and adolescent development in the Department of Psychology at Dominican University of California. Kristal also was temperament counselor and program coordinator of the Kaiser Permanente Temperament Program.

“Children have a variety of temperaments, and even the most explosive child may actually just be on the extreme side of normal temperament,” says Kristal. “A parent or caregiver just has to learn to handle this child differently. Once we recognize temperament as an integral part of each child, we will see children as unique individuals and embrace their differences. We should welcome the special characteristics each child brings to an interaction rather than expect sameness or criticize the differences.”

A child’s challenging temperament, Kristal notes, is not a result of poor parenting. “Only about 10 percent of all children are challenging, feisty, or spirited, but if you’ve got one of those kids, a parent will often think that there must be something wrong with the child or with how they are handling the child.”

Temperament issues will follow a child as he or she grows. Kristal’s book provides a glimpse at what behavior issues could come up in the future by examining different temperaments at different ages. Kristal also provides tips and guidelines showing how to help children maneuver some of the trickier aspects of childhood, including developing peer relationships, maintaining a positive self-esteem, and learning self-management skills.

The idea for the book, which is based on the work of temperament theory pioneers Stella Chess, M.D. and Alexander Thomas, M.D. came to Kristal when she began teaching her child behavior and temperament classes. “I never had a text that I felt covered what I wanted to cover,” she explains. Instead Kristal would put together her own readers for the course, often drawing from the cases she had worked on as a temperament counselor both in private practice and with the Kaiser Permanente Temperament Program. Chess and Thomas asked Kristal to write a book on child temperament that could be used as a text in classrooms.

“When I decided to write the book, I realized I had over 600 cases that I could draw from. So I got together some Dominican students to wade through all this data and figure out what kind of kids we were seeing and what kinds of temperament traits we were seeing most often. The book grew from that exercise.”

The book is divided into three parts. The first section defines and explains temperament, while the second section discusses common temperament issues for each age range – from infancy through middle childhood – and suggests strategies for management. In the third section, Kristal discusses how to apply temperament concepts at home, in schools, childcare facilities, medical centers, and in psychotherapy.

About 40 percent of all children have an easy-going temperament. Of those children not so easy to handle, Kristal said she sees certain temperament combinations more frequently than others.

In one sample of 400 children, Kristal noted the highest incidence of cases seen by temperament counselors was in the high energy, low adjustability category (34.75 percent). These are the children who are loud, dramatic, active, and have a strong opinion about everything. They prefer a daily routine and become very upset with sudden changes in plans. The high-energy component of these children propels them into new activities, but they become extremely frustrated when they cannot perform a task perfectly.

Sensitive/withdrawing children were the second group seen most often
(25.5 percent). These children are shy, cautious, and highly sensitive to any stimulation.† They may refuse to interact with peers at preschool. The children may cry when they arrive at school and when their parents leave. They also may refuse to try new activities and stay close to one teacher.

At 21 percent, the low/average energy, low adjustability group was the third-largest receiving counseling. Parents may recognize these kids as the ‘whiners,’ who are strong-willed, easily frustrated, but not highly active or overactive. These children make up their minds and remain firm. They may ignore parents’ requests and, when attempting a new task, refuse help but become increasingly frustrated with the challenge.

The high energy, high adjustability was fourth (12.5 percent). These children get into everything but adjust easily to change. These children are the ones that run off during outings and rarely want to rest. Parents of children who were low energy, high adjustability were the least likely to seek counseling (6.25 percent). Parents of these children may worry that their child is not assertive enough.

“The caregiver who is sensitive to the child’s individual differences, who can read the child’s cues, and who responds to the child’s needs in a fitting manner creates goodness of fit,” says Kristal. “Once a parent or a teacher understands the child, they can then create more positive relationships and identify and predict areas that could be problematic in the future, and work with a child rather than against a child.”