Parents almost always look forward to the day when they finally get to meet their newborn infant. In fact, many parents have been dreaming of what their infant will be like once he or she is born. As every parent learns, however, infants are born with their own way of being or, what some call, their own temperament. Temperament is the predisposition we all have toward emotional reactivity and self-regulation (Bates, Maslin, & Frankel, 1985).
Lucky for most parents, most infants are born with an easy temperament. In other words, these infants regulate themselves well and are flexible, positive, and affectionare (Billman & McDevitt, 1980). Some infants are born with more difficult temperaments, though, and have more difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors. They are active, rigid, unaffectionate, and aversive (Billman & McDevitt, 1980). Early studies also identified infants with a third type of temperament, those who are slow-to-warm (Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1968). Each infants’ temperament helps them to be a unique individual.
Given the different kinds of emotional and behavioral tendencies that come with each type of temperament, it should not come as a huge surprise that parents may act differently with infants and young children who have different kinds of temperaments. In fact, young children’s temperaments are related to the ways in which young children react to other people and the ways in which other people react to them (Bates et al., 1985). For example, infants who have easy temperaments are more likely to have mothers who use positive and effective parenting behaviors. In contrast, infants who have difficult temperaments are more likely to have mothers who use negative or unfavorable parenting behaviors (Bowlby, 1982).
Certainly, it could be the case that young children’s difficult temperaments may promote frustration in parents, ultimately leading to more problematic parenting. It also could be the case, however, that problems in parenting can exacerbate young children’s difficult temperaments. For example, young children who have difficult temperaments may be at risk for receiving harsh parenting. Such harsh parenting may put children at risk for a variety of emotional and behavioral problems, such as aggression and antisocial behavior (Patterson, 1982). Thus, it is clear that there is a bidirectional relationship between the temperament of infants and young children and the types of parenting behaviors that are used by mothers and fathers.
Although young children’s difficult temperaments and parents’ harsh parenting behaviors are concerning, parents’ perceptions of their young children and their own parenting may tell us the rest of the story. In fact, research suggests that young children’s temperament is related to mothers’ perceptions of their young children (Van den Boom & Hoeksma, 1994). For example, mothers’ experience an increase in their tendency to blame children for their own behavior when they observe difficult temperament characteristics in their children (Smith & O’Leary, 1995).
Research also suggests that parents experience an increase in their negative perceptions of their young children when they have to set more limits and maintain more control over their young children’s behaviors. These negative perceptions then are related to parents’ increased ratings of their young children having difficulty with attentional control, inhibition, and perceptual sensitivity (Aring & Renk, in press). Given these findings, how parents may be thinking about their young children may be driving a cycle of parenting behaviors. In other words, young children who are difficult to begin with may prompt their parents to experience more negative (or less positive) feelings and to subsequently feel more frustrations in parenting. These frustrations may then prompt more difficult behaviors and allow the cycle to repeat itself.
Such findings would suggest that both parents and their young children would benefit from focusing on the positives in each other and in their relationship in an effort to foster positive outcomes for everyone in the family. Thus, just a subtle shift to a more positive view of young children, especially if they have a more difficult temperament, may be helpful.
Aring, S., & Renk, K. (In press). Associations among young children’s temperament, parents’ perceptions of their young children, and characteristics of the parent-young child relationship. Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology.
Bates, J. E., Masline, C. A., & Frankel, K. A. (1985). Attachment security , mother-child interaction, and temperament as predictors of behavior problem ratings at age three years. Society for Research in Child Development Monographs, Special Issue, Growing Points in Attachment Theory and Research (Serial no. 209), 50, 167-193.
Billman, J., & McDevitt, S. C. (1980). Convergence of parent and observer ratings of temperament with observations of peer interaction in nursery school. Child Development, 51, 395-400.
Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Patterson, G. R. (1982). Coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia.
Smith, A. M., & O’Leary, S.G. (1995). Attributions and arousal as predictors of maternal discipline. Cognitive Therapy Research, 19, 459-471.
Thomas, A., Chess, S., & Birch, H. G. (1968). Temperament and behavior disorders in children. New York: New York University Press.
Van den Boom, D. C., & Hoeksma, J. B. (1994). The effect of infant irritability on mother-infant interaction: A growth-curve analysis. Developmental Psychology, 30, 581-590.