"Work with your child’s temperament, not against it” — how many times have you heard that? What this sage advice means is that you should seek to understand your child’s inborn personality, accept its genetically based limitations and cultivate its associated unique assets. The biological nature of temperament renders children blameless for certain unsavory tendencies, whether little Joey exhibits moody reclusiveness or a daredevil streak. But as parents, we want to make the most of our kids’ personality strengths and minimize the potential harm of what could be weaknesses.
A shy, reactive child will be slow to warm to new situations, needs strong encouragement about participation in activities and thrives best in certain low-stress niches. His well-informed parent will understand that he needs firm nudges to join social groups but will avoid overwhelming him with excessive expectations, especially in unfamiliar circumstances. Meanwhile, the high-energy and thrill-seeking child will love activity, risk and stimulation. Her savvy parent will accept the chaos that accompanies her personality and provide opportunities for her to explore her curiosity safely.
Basic aspects of temperament endure from the cradle to the grave but a parent’s nurturing is huge in shaping a child’s life for all that time in between. Think of it this way: The introverted child may become a famous professor or a hermit; the aggressive extrovert may become a successful entrepreneur or a con artist. Parent navigation plays a big (but not all-determining) role in deciding which way the wind blows. Good and bad random events, a child’s neighborhood, school and family financial resources also play large roles.
Although there are many theories and systems of categorization, cross-cultural research shows that temperaments differ by the degrees to which an individual experiences and expresses fear, aggression and sociability as compared to another individual. While all sorts of genetic code contribute to these differences, our arousal system is the Grand Central Station that mediates our “nature.”
An ancient relic in our old emotional brains, our brain’s amygdalae (one in each hemisphere) evolved over millions of years to protect us from dangers and to help us survive. An amygdala detects and reacts to perceived threats; it triggers that famous “fight or flight” response. Fear allows us to detect and avoid danger, aggression empowers us to fight it and sociability gives us the capability of coping with it.
Threats can be real or imagined, life-threatening or innocuous. The arousal system sets off a physiological “stress” alarm that determines whether your baby likes the rattle or screams bloody murder. It influences whether your preschooler runs happily into class or begs to stay home. It contributes to whether your teen joins a bunch of clubs or refuses to join any at all.
Obviously, these temperaments exist on a continuum, and the most challenged parents (and children) are dealing with the extremes of high and low arousal. The fearful, avoidant and easily overwhelmed child with over-reactive amygdalae will dread the unfamiliar and perceive danger everywhere. The child with under-reactive amygdalae will be risk-prone and boldly seek excitement. The parent’s challenge is to nudge the avoidant child forward and pull the sensation-seeking child back, so both can explore the world safely and fully while learning how to self-regulate their hyper- and hypo-arousal systems.
The low-reactive but high-energy child
Of course, parents wish for “just the right amount” of reactivity and energy — appropriate fear for danger and risk, together with passion for school, extracurricular activities and future career-building. We like the idea of “fire in the belly,” but not so much that little Janey runs off the rails with her plans to become the next Beyoncé by age 14, or so little that little Johnny only wants to play alone with his computer in the basement.
I once worked with a student who got into academic trouble because all he wanted was to do skateboard tricks for countless hours (until it was snowboarding season, that is). After the six-year college plan, he started a customized fitness center, which became a successful business venture. The fact that no one would have guessed that this high-energy kid would end up a highly motivated entrepreneur at the age of 30 is a testament to the mystery of child development and to the dedication of parents who kept leveraging their support for keeping their kids on a responsibility track.
A parent’s first challenge with a high-energy and risk-taking kid is to accept that trying to tame “sensation-seeking” is like riding a bucking bronco. Parents of children with “spirited,” “difficult” or ADHD temperaments are thrown for a loop when they dutifully restrain their kids’ impulses to kick up a storm and fly high. Vertigo should be expected.
When these high-zeal kids are young, they are likely to frequently end up in meltdowns when they get riled up with emotion. As teens, they still can, especially with the expected increase in moodiness, reactivity and risk-taking associated with puberty. With the immaturity of the impulse control system and hormones at all-time highs, these bucking broncos can look like wild, wild horses when loose on the prairie (read: when unsupervised).
Parents will want to anticipate situations that are likely to trigger zeal gone amok. Any activity that jacks up high energy to a frenzy level is likely to be risky. Thus, parents of these kids are especially advised to increase supervision and safety plans for big events (school field trips), fun outings (birthday parties, sleepovers) and special social occasions (prom and graduation).
My experience as a psychologist counseling kids with extreme temperaments is that they all benefit from especially skilled parents. All kids need their parents to praise good behaviors, ignore low-level messes, develop their talents and keep a sense of humor. But since high-energy kids kick up so much dust, parenting efforts need to be multiplied to manage conflicts and keep the lid on risk-taking while establishing outlets for high-energy fun and expression.
The high-reactive, sensitive child
Highly sensitive children react strongly and negatively to novelty and have trouble moving out of their comfort zones. They’re not necessarily low in energy, but they are low in tolerance for trying new things. New experiences trigger the false alarm system in their “fear and anxiety” centers. Children who are shy, anxious and avoidant will try to get out of doing anything that raises that distress level.
Highly sensitive kids need their parents to nudge them forward into the big social world, just as low-reactive/high-zeal kids need parents to pull them back. There is a catchy phrase in neuroscience for describing how people naturally seek their emotional comfort zones: “Individuals seek their optimal state of arousal.” High-energy kids rev themselves
up to feel good, whereas shy and anxious children will avoid, avoid
Parents also need to be creative.
Anxiety and sadness squelch zeal and motivation. Parents need to encourage their children to be brave and push past their inclinations to minimize discomfort by avoidance. These kids can’t help it that they get triggered by their low threshold for fear and anxiety, but like the hyper kid who needs to learn self-control, the highly sensitive child needs to develop skills for coping with anxiety states and forging ahead.
Engineering new experiences for these children can jump-start the discovery of zeal when the initial anxiety or adversity abates. The challenge is finding settings that both offer tolerable anxiety and inspiring opportunities for growth.
So parents of high-reactive children need to be tenacious. They can give their children a deadline for choosing a sport or extracurricular activity, telling them that they get to choose “which” activity, but not “whether” they commit. If (or should I say “when”) the child refuses, the parent(s) should choose for the child. For shy or reluctant children, a more benign option will be a non-competitive context with adult support, like martial arts, African drumming or volunteering at a retirement home. They can always choose an alternative — but there needs to be some action!
Parents also need to be creative. In the same way that the parents of high-zeal kids might broker time with homework in exchange for social freedoms, parents of anxious and avoidant kids can allow solo time to be contingent on a certain amount of time spent with friends and activities outside the home.
A sensitive child’s reactive, fearful and cautious tendency usually continues in some form through childhood and adolescence. The good news is that parents who continue their nudging and expose their kids to incremental challenges may be happily surprised at the resulting growth spurt.
This article was originally published in 2013 and updated for 2017.