“Nature, we are starting to realize, is every bit as important as nurture. Genetic influences, brain chemistry, and neurological development contribute strongly to who we are as children and what we become as adults.” -Stanley Turecki, M.D.
Sue and Alan Richardson are like so many other distressed parents who reach out to our counseling clinic. They have three kids. Two have been launched successfully, and they have warm relationships and good communication. Sue and Alan are devastated because one of their kids, now 19, is such a problem. Samantha struggled with depression beginning in junior high, rages at them on occasion, tried to make it at college but couldn’t stand the pressure, and has bounced back home again. What went wrong? They parented all three kids similarly but Samantha was always more difficult and highly sensitive.
Parents often get blamed or blame themselves for any problem that shows up in their children. We now know that every baby is born with certain innate inherited characteristics or temperament. Temperament is, by definition, the part of a child’s personality that is not caused by good or bad parenting. Built-in traits will affect each child’s style of interacting with people, places and things throughout their lifetime. The research validates what many parents knew intuitively all along. Some babies are easy, and some are more challenging. Because it is almost taboo to say something negative about one child or to compare your kids, many parents don’t get the support that they need when struggling with a more difficult child.
The debate about just how much of our behavior and personality is genetic vs. environmental, or nature vs. nurture, has raged on for the last hundred years. Twenty or thirty years ago, in an ongoing effort to understand why people behave in certain ways, both good and bad, researchers focused more on the nurture side, examining things like the family environment or types of parenting that were correlated with problems or resiliency in children. In the past ten years, with advances in technology that have helped us unravel more of the mysteries of both genetics and also how the brain works, the pendulum has swung back towards the important impact of a child’s genetic make-up, the nature side of the debate.
The truth, of course, of why we are the way we are, lies somewhere in the middle. Each of us is the product of both our biology (nature) and our social learning (nurture). Beginning in the 1950’s, researchers Thomas, Chess, Birch, Hertzig and Korn, launched the New York Longitudinal Study, which rated young infants on nine characteristics and followed them as they grew up. They discovered that sixty-five percent of babies readily fit into one of three categories: easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm-up.
Of the sixty-five per cent, forty percent fit the easy pattern, readily adapting to new experiences, generally exhibiting positive moods, with normal eating and sleeping patterns. In contrast were the ten percent who fell into the difficult pattern, These babies were very emotional, crying a lot, often irritable and fussy, with irregular eating and sleeping patterns. Another fifteen percent were slow to warm up, typically withdrawing from new situations and people, only adapting to new people or environments after repeated exposure.
The other thirty-five per cent were more subtle combinations of each of nine factors that comprise temperament including activity levels, adaptability, intensity, moodiness, and distractibility. Researchers have found that these broad patterns of temperamental qualities are remarkably stable into adulthood and are also found in children across all cultures. Think about your children, yourself or your mate and what might be the innate differences between you. (Here is a link to a list of all nine characteristics and further reading).
Now let’s come back to the story of the Richardson family and the hundreds of thousands like them. Because of temperament, some children adapt quickly and easily to family routines and get along with siblings, but others who are more active, intense, shy, or moody may have a difficult time adjusting. The frustrating, negative interactions between these children and their parents or siblings can cause enormous stress and friction between the parents and within the family.
Once you have learned more about your child’s temperament as well as your own, you can see how some children “fit” better with some adults. If your temperament is vastly different from that of your child, it is easy to think something is terribly wrong with one or both of you. Further exploration of temperament can help parents spot the trouble areas, notice problems of poor fit, and come up with strategies for adapting to their child’s unique strengths and weaknesses.
For example, a slow-paced parent may be irritated by a highly active child or vice versa; or if both parent and child are highly sensitive and intense, lots of conflict could result. What may appear at first glance to be a behavioral problem may actually be a mismatch between a parent’s temperament (and their resultant parenting style) and their child’s. Sometimes one child seems to bring out the worst in both parents. Or conversely, sometimes one parent seems to bring out a difficult child’s strengths.
Not all kids are alike, and some kids take parents with almost superhuman powers of patience and persistence. Taking the first step–from blame to understanding–is crucial. We are each born with a given temperament as well as a myriad of other strengths and challenges. Out of our genetic grab bag, are the building blocks of character, mysteriously designed to blend destiny with free will.
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Last reviewed: 6 May 2013