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Here's How to Connect with a Child Who's Different than You

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Before I had kids, I assumed my connection to each of them would be equal. The reality is – it is not. My love for all three of them is the deepest I know but the ease of connection varies between them, and also changes over time. Something feels shameful about admitting that. The thing is – it is just a biological reality. Something to tune into and work on.

Some periods I feel particularly close to one kid, and then it shifts to another, most often in a subtle way that I don’t really notice until I reflect back. Clearly this is mediated by different developmental changes (among other things), but another important and influencing factor is parent-child match, or “goodness of fit” as what it is commonly called in the world of psychology.

Goodness of fit refers to the compatibility of the child’s temperament to their surrounding environment, which is strongly influenced by the primary caregiver (often the parent). How well matched is my child’s personality style with mine?

Temperament is the innate disposition the child is born with (‘nature’). Thomas and Chess (1990) came up with three temperament styles – Easy Babies (about 40% of kids), Difficult Babies (10%), and Slow to Warm Up Babies (15%). Although temperament generally refers to how babies are born, it is also impacted by their social environment (‘nurture’).

Easy Babies are generally cheerful, easy to soothe, adjust to new situations well, and are easy to establish routines with. Difficult Babies do not adjust to new situations as easily, react strongly to new stimuli, and tend to be fussier. Slow to Warm-Up Babies begin life more reactive and difficult to soothe but eventually settle over time.

And, there are nine variables that determine temperament. These are activity level, rhythm, approach/withdrawal, distractibility, emotional intensity, mood, adaptability, sensory threshold, and attention span/persistence.

As a psychologist whom works with parents and kids, one of the first things I look to understand is both the parent and the child’s temperamental style, and how they interact.

For example, in my family, I am a 5th born, active, social, very community-focused person, who loves embracing the messiness of life (mostly). A perfect example of this was when my daughter, Eve, was born. I had a c-section, spent 4 days in the hospital, and then arrived home and about 8 of my closest friends showed up at the door the next day with food, gifts, and wine. They spent most of the day with me, holding Eve or tending to her in the Moses Basket on the floor of the bustling kitchen, and sharing everything from their own birthing stories to local gossip. I sat in a chair, moving sparingly, as my boobs adjusted to the flooding of the newly arrived milk, my stomach burned with pain induced by even the most minimal movement, and I was bleeding wildly in those particularly crappy hospital undies. A sight to be seen, for sure. Many women would hide in their bedrooms until their bodies recalibrated, but the sense of connection, love and community trumped any sense of pride, pain, or embarrassment I had. Because of how I was raised, large groups mean love to me. Yes, I need downtime, but community refuels me too.

Eve is turning out to be cut from a similar cloth. I mean, if this was her experience on her 5th day of life who knows what is nature versus nurture, but my hunch is that she and I were born with a similar temperament. She slept well from the beginning and often napped on the kitchen floor with her two big brothers stomping around. Full cheeked, squishy smiles came naturally and frequently. I got her rhythm. She seemed to get mine. And we still get each other, easily (as of now).

At 5 years old, she often asks if we can host family dinner parties, which we do frequently. This is when a bunch of families come over, we cook, adults indulge in wine, and kids run wild and free in a multi-aged group. It is mix between a scene from Lord of the Flies and home cooking show. This is Eve and my shared dream, and many others’ nightmare.

In comparison, one of my sons, who is deeply loving, empathic, and probably one the gentlest and kind souls on the planet, needs more solitude and refuels in a different way than I do. Last week, after a fun, active, and busy sleepover, he called at 10am and asked if I could pick him up soon. He is much more reasonable than I am around setting personal expectations. He knows himself well, loves a good bath, and absolutely needs a few minutes after school each day to himself before he joins the gaggle of neighborhood kids bouncing on our trampoline. At first, it would make me sad to see himself inside on the couch when the loud chaotic choir of neighborhood friends sang through the window. The thing is, sadness was my emotion – not his. Large family dinners are fine for him (now), but he knows to pull away to his room and chill when necessary.

What I have learned is that I must be careful not to impose my own beliefs and needs onto him. He is incredibly tuned in to what his mind, heart, and body tell him – and my job is to support him, and not to encourage something else based on what my mind, heart, and body tell me.

A not so proud parenting moment was when we had a family dinner party and he was about 3 years old. He would sometimes become overstimulated and activated by large groups (it was a regular occurrence for him to cry at his birthday parties). Inevitably, a little kid would not play by the rules, and my very typical first born would blow a gasket due to the injustice of it. At this particular dinner, my son was “acting out.” He was crying, pulling on me, and felt like he was doing anything possible to suck my attention away from my friends to him. Instead of seeing his behavior as a request for me to help him manage his feelings of overstimulation, I pushed him away. It still makes me cringe to remember back hearing him yell and cry in his bedroom while I “ignored his bad behavior.” This whole incident would have ended so much faster had I acknowledged his needs (that were generally different than mine), moved towards him (rather than away), and gave him tools to manage and self-soothe. Live and learn.

For all the parents out there, you aren’t a bad parent. And your kids aren’t bad. Something to consider is how well matched your temperaments are. A few questions to ask are:

  • Do my child and I have a similar or different need for physical activity?
  • Do my child and I approach new situations similarly or differently? Do we approach new things with boldness and engagement, or more slowly and with hesitation?
  • Do my child and I adapt similarly or differently to new situations? Do we adapt to unfamiliar or new environments/routines/plans with ease and flexibility or with difficulty?
  • Do my child and I have a similar intensity level (low to high)?
  • Do my child and I generally have the same type of mood (agreeable & content vs. irritable & unhappy)?
  • Do my child and I have a similar ability to stay on task (highly focused vs. unfocused)?
  • Do my child and I have a similar level of distractibility (highly distractible by outside stimuli vs. not distracted by outside stimuli)?
  • Do my child and I have a similar sensory threshold (the amount of stimuli needed to create a response – positive or negative)?

These questions are meant to help parents pause and notice your own temperament style, and the style of your child. Goodness of fit helps parents understand that the child’s behavior is not bad or pathological just because it is different. However, it is also important to not attribute all behavior to temperament and to distinguish a more difficult temperament from other issues such as medical conditions, mental health issues, and other stressors. If you are concerned, the best bet is to talk with your pediatrician. But more often than not, a healthy dose of empathy and understanding can bridge these temperamental differences.

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