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Mother Nurture

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002, 2003

Working with Challenging Child Temperaments

Some kids are naturally easy-going, adaptable, and cheerful. Sure, they'll still cry if the ice cream falls off their cone, but in general, they have the sort of temperament that makes a parent's job considerably easier: they trot into preschool with no clinging to mom or dad at the door, and if their favorite sweatshirt is in the wash, it's no big deal to put on a different one. They can sit quietly for fairly long periods and settle down quickly if they get excited or mad, and if they can't build their block structure just right, they don't knock it over out of frustration.

On the other hand, probably at least a third of all children depart dramatically from this profile, and it's usually quite clear by the child's first or second birthday. Most of these kids fit one these patterns:

Cautious/Rigid - Slow to warm to new situations, people, or activities. Obsessive attachment to objects (like favorite articles of clothing) or routines. Highly insecure about separating from parent or father. Often have intense fears (ie. dogs, loud noises, or the dark).

Spirited - High activity level, and rev up quickly. Always looking for something new and exciting. Often seem to have short attention span or difficulty listening. Physically bold, risk-taking, even aggressive. Intense, dramatic, fill the room with their energy.

These children bring special gifts to their families, like helping their parents really pay attention to family routines (cautious kids), or livening up otherwise stuffy occasions (spirited ones). Nonetheless, they can't help but be considerably more stressful for you to raise, especially if their disposition tends toward the high end of either type - in which case his or her temperament could well be the biggest single stressor in your life.

A cautious or spirited temperament has consequences for the child as well, often leading to more difficulties with other children, problems in childcare or school, and angry conflicts with his or her parents. To help yourself, and your child, we've put together a package of approaches (on a foundation, of presumably, of loving nurturance and reasonable discipline) that we've seen work in numerous families - many of which are useful for more easygoing kids as well:

Have extra compassion for your child and you

Nurture more than ever

Provide lots of structure

Teach skills

Optimize the child's physiology

Get support


Twins and Triplets

There are more twins and triplets than ever before; for example, since 1980, there's been a 42% jump in twin births. Obviously, having twins or triplets is not a matter of a challenging temperament - unless each of them is cautious or spirited! But having several children all at once is definitely more work. Plus, they're often the result of fertility treatments for older women, so their parent is more easily worn out. Or they could have been born prematurely, another challenging complication.

Therefore, if you've got twins or triplets, you need more nurturing than ever. Look into local organizations for the parents of "multiple" births; you can also get information, referrals, and support from:

The National Organization of Mothers of Twins Clubs, Inc. (NOMOTC). Box 438, thompson Station, TN 37179-0438. 615-595-0936.

TWINS Magazine:

Winnipeg Parents of Twins & Triplets Organization:

Tamba: Twins and Multiple Births Associations:

If there isn't a group near you that specifializes in twins and triplets, join one of the regular mothers' clubs in your area: you'll get plenty of sympathy and practical help. Dads can also make a big difference: they tend to pitch in more when babies make four (or more) and they just have to, since it is simply impossible for one caregiver to take care of two young children at once, especially infants. Try to get extra support, too, from your family and his, friends and neighbors, and paid childcare. Give yourself permission to let the housework go, and maybe get an occasional housekeeper. Long after you've forgotten about the grime on the counter, you'll have twice as many reasons - or even three! - to celebrate being a parent.

Have Extra Compassion for Your Child and Yourself

There's a saying that parents of one child think that their child's disposition is all about "nurture," while parents of two or more kids think it's much more about "nature" - because they see how different two children can be who are raised in much the same environment. A child's temperament - those stable tendencies in how he feels, reacts to situations, or sees the world - is biologically determined, and it's often obvious within a few months - or hours! - after his birth. For example, our first child, Forrest, stayed awake for several hours after he was delivered, looking around with interest, eager to interact, as if he were saying, Where's the party?! Our second child, Laurel, came out, blinked, closed her eyes, and went back to sleep; her attitude seemed more like, This is OK, but I'm more interested in other things, and please don't bother me. These fundamental approaches to life have persisted to this day: Forrest is more spirited, sociable, extroverted, and responsive to others while Laurel is more introverted, interested in projects she pursues on her own, and independent-minded. Both are happy and thriving. But they're doing it in very different ways.

It's natural for you to view your child's temperament as a reflection on you, as if it were a project that needs fixing, or a sign of willful disobedience - or perhaps a deliberate effort to drive you mad! It's also natural to feel disappointed in a child that hasn't turned out to be what you thought you had bargained for. These feelings are often painful to acknowledge - yet if we shove them down, they don't go away, and they inevitably leak out and the child always sense them. Like any difficult feeling, they're best admitted to oneself and perhaps another, and then (if possible) released and replaced with a more accepting, philosophical, and humorous attitude.

But in fact, a child is as much the victim of her temperament as you are, like the hapless rider of a runaway horse. You can sometimes see that a child really wishes she could act differently, but she just can't help it. One time Rick was trying to give Laurel (then age three) breakfast, and she had to have a certain kind of cereal - which wasn't in the house. In spite of being offered lots of other good foods, she threw a major fit. Midway through it, Rick had the sense, looking in her eyes, that she was in fact horrified at where her blind insistence on getting her way was leading, and frightened at being out of control, but she simply could not stop.

Certainly, a child needs discipline regardless of her temperament, and her parents need to offer guidance and skills and sensible boundaries. Yet the foundation of all this has to be compassion from her parents, or she'll feel in a deep place that there is something wrong with her essential nature. Besides being good for her, compassion calms you down and draws you into a less stressful place inside. It helps you feel more peaceful to see the strengths in her nature, particularly if it is different from your own.

When the friction between you is at its worst, or other people are giving you The Look, it's easy to think that her temperament is a kind of aberration from the ideal of the shiny happy child. But it's important to keep in mind that there is a wide range of temperaments for very good reason: until recently, humans lived - and mated - mainly in tribal groups, and those that contained a diversity of temperaments were generally more able to survive the diversity of problems that nature threw at them.. Every group - whether a Stone Age tribe or the board of a Fortune 500 corporation - needs people who are cautious, and others who are eager to take risks.

Finally, you deserve compassion, too, since no matter how much you cherish your child, her temperament still brings more stress and demands upon you. And, of course, try not to be hard on yourself because your child is cautious or spirited, nor rattled by the judgments or rolled eyes of others. If anything, you deserve extra kudos!

[ Pull out

Our mothers teach us the power and value of compasion right from our birth.

The Dalai Lama ]

Nurturing as Prevention

A cautious or spirited child is bound to receive more correction, criticism, and scolding than one who is more easy-going. So he needs more nurturing from his parents, and other caregivers, in order to compensate.

Additionally, the degree of a child's cautiousness or spiritedness is often intensified by a drop in nurturance, perhaps due to the arrival of a new baby, a change in sleeping arrangements, an entry into childcare or a new preschool, mom returning to work, or dad getting a new job with a longer commute. By finding it within yourself to surge greater nurturance into your child, there will often be a pleasant easing of some of the extremes of temperament: less clinging, anxiety, and rigidity - or less jumpiness, distractibility, and intensity. Reasonably enough, you might fear that if you give your child more nurturance (sometimes framed as "giving in to his demands"), then he will just want more than ever. But in fact, your loving attention will help settle down his neediness, particularly if you also teach him how to take in good experiences and make them a permanent part of himself (which we'll discuss further, in our next column); he'll be happier, and easier for your to raise. In essence, extra nurturance for the challenging child is the ounce of prevention that heads off a pound of trouble.

Provide Lots of Structure

Of course, being super-nurturing doesn't mean letting a child walk all over you, or anyone else, simply because he's being "temperamental." Cautious and spirited children need even more consistency and limits than most kids do. Structure is reassuring, soothing the fears of both cautious and spirited children (while a cautious child looks more conspicuously fearful, a spirited child is often quite anxious behind his bravado, and one of the main motives behind any aggressiveness is that it is a way to dispel fear).

Structure consists both of what you make sure is present in a child's life as well as what is deliberately absent. In terms of what's present, a consistent daily routine will help keep both spirited and cautious kids "inside the lines." Your expectations for behavior should be very clear, and kindly and relentlessly enforced. Try to be creative in your family's structures, tailoring them to the unique needs of your child. For example, since a spirited child is particularly prone to forgetfulness and disorganization - How many times do I have to tell you to get your lunchbox in the morning?! What, you've left your jacket at school again?! - try to provide forms of structure that simplify things and provide reminders. For example, you could put a basket in his bedroom for dirty clothes rather than hope he'll put them in the hamper - and he'll probably turn it into a chance to shoot some hoops. Or take a snapshot of each of the basic steps in the morning routine - wash face, put away pajamas, put on clothes, eat breakfast, get jacket for trip to childcare, etc. - and glue them to a piece of poster board for a daily, visual checklist.

As to what you intentionally keep out of your child's world, at the top of the list should be those things that exacerbate his or her temperamental tendencies. For example, highly intense or novel experiences can be so frightening that they heighten the rigidities of a cautious child. Exposing a spirited child to thrill-a-minute or violent stimuli - like many TV shows or video games - or to angry quarrrels between his parents, often evokes more aggression in him. Consider your child's friends: do they bring out the best in your child, or those qualities that are most challenging for him - and you?

* * *

In our next column, we'll cover how to teach kids the skills they need to manage their own temperaments - like relaxing, lightening up, soothing oneself, letting go of upsetting experiences, shifting gears and making new plans, and taking in positive experiences so they become a permanent part of oneself (which helps balance negative experiences and also helps develop inner resources).

(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at or email them with questions or comments at; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.)