temperamental childYou might have heard this one before:

Parents have a child.  That child is fantastic in every way, and the parents congratulate themselves on their fine parenting.  They have another child.  If they’re honest with themselves, it’s not going so great this time around.  No matter what they do, it feels wrong.  The kid’s a holy terror.  They think, “We must be terrible parents.”

The truth?

A lot seems to come down to temperament.  It’s not that we can’t influence things are parents.  Of course we do.  But the inborn temperament of a child is pretty powerful. Sometimes it feels downright deterministic.

My daughter is often sunny and emotionally connected to me, which was incredibly important to me in undertaking this whole parenting thing.  But she also has some trouble playing on her own, and I’ve had some worries about her turning into one of those “Hey, Ma, look at me every second!” kids.

As she’s gotten a little older, she has been somewhat more self-entertaining, so that fear has abated a bit.  It’s been replaced by other worries regarding her development (details to follow in another post).  But what it has me thinking about is the fit between parents and children, and how innate temperament can really impact that.

As parents, we generally want to bond with our children.  We want them to feel safe with us.  There’s nothing so gratifying as when my daughter’s crying, in need of comfort, and she collapses against me in utter trust and then stops crying.  She knows that I’m here, and as long as that’s true, she’s okay.

But part of what allows me to comfort her is that she is a child who can be readily comforted.  It’s not simply my magical touch, or that I’ve been emotionally responsive (which I believe I typically am.)  Her temperament is conducive to our bonding.  She accepts what I provide.

There are other children where this isn’t the case, where a parent does his or her absolute best and still, the child is fussy or unhappy or uncomfortable.  It’s not that a one-year-old is obstinate.  He or she certainly wants to feel better and is mystified as to how to make that happen.  So are the parents.

This can start a cycle of disconnection, as the parent feels his or her efforts are futile, that they’re failing at something so fundamental as providing the love that comforts their child.  It is incredibly painful, and can lead to greater frustration from the parents and then more fussiness from the child, and so on.

If parents find themselves in this type of cycle, they might feel a lot of shame.  They might blame themselves.  I hope they don’t, and that they recognize what they’re up against and seek out books or people to talk to.  There are children who are more difficult to bond with than others, and sometimes we need help to make that happen.

Sometimes children grow out of certain phases; sometimes parents learn better ways to respond.  But in an escalating and repetitive cycle, it’s best to intervene early, without shame or blame.

Crying child photo available from Shutterstock