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Why Time-out Doesn't Work for All Kids and Other Secrets from Temperament-Based Parenting

by Sandee McClowry, Ph.D., RN, FAAN
boy running with ball

Introduction

Time-out for misbehavior is a time-honored child management strategy. But as some parents have learned, time-out and various other management strategies do not work for every child. The reason that some children do not respond to various tactics is frequently related to the child’s temperament. By understanding principles from temperament-based parenting, however, effective management strategies that are specific to a child’s temperament can be implemented.

Temperament

Soon after birth a child begins to exhibit a distinctive temperament. Researchers in child development have confirmed what parents of multiple children have come to know through experience. Each child is unique. One may be friendly and flexible. Another cautious and shy, and a third, perhaps, is feisty. Temperament is defined as the consistent reaction style that a child demonstrates across a variety of settings and situations, particularly those that involve stress and change. Temperament is also is a lens through which individuals view their world.1 In the framework of temperament-based parenting, four dimensions of temperament contribute to a child’s general behavioral style:2

  • Activity refers to a child’s motor activity or tendency to move around and be active.
  • Approach/Withdrawal is the child’s first reaction to new people or situations.
  • Task Persistence is the child’s tendency to stick with a task until it’s done, even if he or she is interrupted.
  • Negative Reactivity is the child’s tendency to have negative reactions to life situations.

The first step in temperament-based parenting is to recognize your child’s temperament. You can generate a temperament profile of your child at http://www.nyu.edu/education/nursing/insights/survey.html

Principles of child temperament theory

Underlying the selection of temperament-based child management strategies are several principles:

  1. Children are born with a unique temperament. Temperament involves the intrinsic and stylistic parts of an individual’s behavioral style that are usually consistent from an early age. For example, some babies enjoy novelty while others get distressed when they see new people or objects. Likewise, some babies are easily soothed while others cry for long periods of time.
  2. Temperament influences behavior and emotional reactions. Many temperament reactions are evident because they are manifested by a child’s behavior. Others are more subtle because they involve internal reactions and perceptions to situations.
  3. Temperament is easy to see in situations that involve change or stress. Challenging situations are likely to elicit an honest temperament reaction.
  4. Temperament does not change easily. Consequently, efforts to change a child’s temperament are usually unsuccessful and can also be punitive. For example, a child who is low in approach cannot be changed into someone who is eager to meet new people. Likewise, a child who is high in motor activity is likely to be so in almost any environment.
  5. Goodness of fit is the answer. Goodness of fit is the match of the child’s temperament to the demands, expectations, and opportunities of the environment.3 To promote positive development, effective parents and other caregivers adjust the environment to match a child’s temperament.

Parental responses

A child’s reaction to a situation, particularly one that is stressful is likely to be consistent with the child’s temperament. In turn, the way that a parent responds to the child’s reaction can be more or less effective.

  • Counterproductive parental responses only make the situation worse. They are delivered in an angry tone of voice and include nagging, teasing, and retorting in an irritated fashion.
  • Adequate parental responses are clear directives that are delivered in a neutral tone of voice. They include such strategies as using clear simple language to explain a behavioral expectation to a child or using humor to lighten a tense situation.
  • Optimal parental responses are intended not only to resolve a situation, but also to foster the child’s maturation. They are said in a warm manner and often include statements which relay the parent’s recognition of the child’s temperament.

Temperament-based parenting strategies

No one temperament is ideal in every situation. Instead, each type of temperament endows a child with particular strengths. Responsive parents will praise or verbally acknowledge the positive temperament-related attributes that a child exhibits. The very same temperament characteristics, however, are likely to cause parents concern in other situations. For example, a child who is low in negative reactivity is likely to be cheerful and to get along easily with other children. The same child, however, may be of concern to his or her parents because in an effort to be friendly, the child may lack assertiveness skills. Another child might be delightfully high in approach and eager to try new activities. His or her parent, however, might worry about the child’s judgment when asked to participate in something that might be dangerous.

Once a parent recognizes a child’s temperament, child management strategies can be used that match the various dimensions of the child’s temperament. The following are samples of temperament-based parenting strategies. Children who are:

  • high in negative reactivity cannot be remade into a sunny person. Learn, however, to appreciate his/her honesty.
  • low in negative reactivity are likely to be consistently pleasant. They may, however, need encouragement to express their opinions and needs.
  • low in task persistence are helped when complicated responsibilities are divided into smaller, more manageable components. Also, develop an appreciation for the child’s creativity and divergent thinking.
  • high in task persistence may be self-directed. They are, however, likely to need your support before they can put closure on an activity that does not satisfy their own high expectations.
  • low in activity can sit quietly for long periods of time. He or she, however, may need encouragement to engage in athletic activities.
  • high in activity require adequate opportunities to expend their energy in a positive way. Such needs, however, should not be allowed to dominate a family’s schedule to the detriment of other family members.
  • high in approach need careful and constant monitoring. Such children, however, are likely to delight in opportunities to make new friends.
  • low in approach have a tendency to withdraw from new experiences. Providing goodness of fit often involves easing the child into situations until he or she feels comfortable.

Reducing child behavior problems

In general, there are at least two types of behavior problems that are reduced by temperament-based parenting strategies.

Type l Problem:
Repetitive behaviors that are likely to frustrate a parent because they occur repeatedly. An example of such behavior is the child who consistently fails to bring home the necessary materials to complete a homework assignment. If parental responses to such behaviors are counterproductive (and they usually are), conflict between the parent and child escalates over time. Consequently, a power struggle ensues leaving a parent feeling inadequate. In turn, the child loses confidence in the parent’s ability to help him or her behave in a socially acceptable manner.
Temperament-based strategy: Behavior contracts are recommended for reducing repetitive behaviors. When implemented correctly, behavior contracts reduce the problem behavior, reestablish the parent’s appropriately authoritative role, and improve the parent/child relationship.

Type 2 Problem:
Isolated, rather than repetitive, behavior problems require a different approach. An example might be a child who uncharacteristically hits a sibling or who talks disrespectfully to his/her parent.
Temperament-based strategy: Parents are encouraged to develop a discipline plan for their family that is communicated and negotiated with their children. The plan should include a signal or a single verbal reminder as a first step. Should compliance not occur, a loss of a privilege is then recommended. Misbehavior which is still not curtailed requires a more serious punishment that lets the child know that such infractions are not tolerated within the family.

Enhancing child development

The parent/child relationship has a pivotal influence on a child’s emotional development and the tenor of a family’s collective life. Thus, temperament-based parenting 5 involves more than reducing child behavior problems. It also involves expressing warmth so that a child knows that he or she is cherished and appreciated for his or her uniqueness. As children grow older, their relationship with their parents needs to evolve to match their expanding developmental needs.4 Effective parents support their children’s adaptive functioning by fostering their independence, communication, and negotiation skills.

About the Author

Sandee McClowry, PhD, RN, FAAN is a Professor in the Division of Nursing, Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. She is the author of Your Child’s Unique Temperament: Insights and Strategies for Responsive Parenting. (2003) Research Press.

References

1. Rothbart, M. K., & Bates, J.E.(1998). Temperament. In W. Damon (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (5th ed., pp. 105-174). New York: Wiley

2. McClowry, S. G. (1995) The development of the School-Age Temperament Inventory. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 41:271-285

3. Chess, S. & Thomas, A. (1999) Goodness of fit: Clinical applications from infancy through adult life. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel

4. Collins, W. A., Matsen, S. D., & Susman-Stillman, A. (2002) Parenting during middle childhood. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting: Children and parenting (pp. 73-102). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

5. McClowry, S.G. (2003) Your Child's Unique Temperament: Insights and Strategies for Responsive Parenting. Research Press