As a parent, you have a general sense of whether your kids are worrywarts or free spirits, but accepting your kids for who they are and parenting according to their personalities may make your job raising them both easier and more effective. While it's important to encourage kids to challenge themselves and grow, it's also important to recognize their individual disposition and not force them to be someone they aren't.
"Appreciate the temperament and the abilities of your child, because some children's temperament are such that they really do require more protection from parents," Dr. Sam Goldstein, a psychologist who specializes in children and co-author of "Raising Resilient Children," tells Parenting.com. "They're not ready for more independent activities, and their experience with failure or mistakes tends to be psychologically overwhelming for them. Other children are ready to handle it. It's about accepting your children for who they are."
In his practice, Dr. Goldstein works with children and their parents on this issue. "I just finished visiting with a parent whose little girl has significant problems with worry—and worry is a lack of confidence in predicting outcome," he says. "Since she's been little, she's had anxiety—separation anxiety and school attendance anxiety. Pushing her to engage in those activities without an appreciation of her sensitive temperament puts her in harm."
While Dr. Goldstein is not suggesting the girl should get to stay home from school, he explains that it's important for her parents to work with her with the understanding that their daughter's nervous system leads her to conclude that school is dangerous. By doing so, they can better help her deal with her anxiety.
Dr. Goldstein believes these four steps can help you better understand your child's nature, how it affects the way they interact with the world and how you can adjust your parenting to help them be their best selves:
Step 1: Get educated.
First, you must understand and accept your child's disposition and what is reasonable to expect from him.
"You can't say, 'Well, I accept that my child has an anxious temperament, but I want him to go out into the playground' and then get upset if they don't," Dr. Goldstein says. "You have to say, 'Yeah. I want him to go out into the playground, but the first thing we're going to have to do is help them just kind of get away from me a little bit and feel okay about that.'"
To learn what your child's temperament is and what steps you can take to deal with it, Dr. Goldstein suggests reading articles on websites like Parenting.com, checking out books, talking to teachers, and visiting psychologists, if necessary—and taking the time to pick up on the cues your child is giving.
"It's an active process to have to go looking for the information," he says. "It's not going to come to your door."
He also says to remember that every child is different and can't necessarily be parented the same way with the same results.
Step 2: Measure your mindset.
After learning how your child perceives and experiences the world, you must then manage your feelings and thoughts about it, Dr. Goldstein says.
"We all think of ourselves as potentially perfect parents with perfect children," he says. "Parents have to consider their mindsets about what their child is struggling with."
Only then can your begin to answer the necessary questions. "[You] have to decide, 'How am I going to handle this?" Dr. Goldstein says. "And, 'What feelings do I have about my child? What expectations did I have and are my expectations being fulfilled?'"
Step 3: Make appropriate adjustments.
Next, you can begin what Dr. Goldstein and psychologists call "environmental management" to address any issues your child has.
"Try and manage the environment in such a way that it gives the child reasonable opportunities to try things, but doesn't push them so hard that the probability of success decreases," he says. "Because [if that happens], they never move forward."
Be mindful that this may be a long-term process. "Some children take a long time to feel comfortable and confident in making mistakes and learning from negative experiences," he says.
Step 4: Work together as parents.
Like all parenting, both you and your partner have to be on the same page about your child and your parenting techniques.
"Parents have to collaborate, and temperament is one of those big-ticket items that parents end up not being on the same page about, with one parent thinking the child is manipulating and the other parent seeing the child is really having a challenge," Dr. Goldstein says. "Mom will say, 'She's really nervous about this,' but dad will say, 'Well, you're too easy. You let her be nervous. You got to push her out there.'"
Only when both of you come to an agreement about your child's temperament—and the chosen ways to encourage the child—can you raise that child to be her best self.