Your Unique Child

Have you ever wondered why your children behave the way they do? One may have been quiet and calm from birth, while her sibling runs, bounces and jumps his way through life, yelling all the way. And these differences have been obvious since birth.

These inborn natural tendencies to react or behave a particular way are known as temperament, which some refer to as the “basic building blocks” of behaviour.

A baby’s temperament can be determined by observing several traits (see box below).

There’s no point trying to change her temperament, because it’s just as much a part of her as the colour of her hair and eyes, the shape of her nose, and whether she has a dimple in her face. However, temperament (which is inherited more or less equally from each parent) accounts for only half of baby’s personality. The environment in which she grows up will account for the other 50%.

A quick look at temperament

Trait Description
Activity level – general Fidgety vs being able to sit still
Activity level – sleep Quality of sleep: disturbed vs non-disturbed
Approach/Withdrawal The tendency to approach or withdraw from new persons, situations or events
Flexibility/Rigidity The tendency to respond flexibly (or rigidly) to changes in the external environment
Mood Low or positive mood
Rhythmicity – sleep Regularity of sleeping patterns
Rhythmicity – eating Regularity of eating patterns
Rhythmicity – daily habits Regularity of daily habits such as going to the toilet
Task orientation Level of concentration on a task

When temperamental traits are combined, they result in three groups of children:

  1. Easy children are often happy and have predictable sleep and feeding patterns. They approach new food, toys, or people and adapt easily to new environments.
  2. Difficult children tend to have unpredictable feeding and sleeping patterns. They have difficulty getting used to new environments. They also tend to be fussy and cry a lot.
  3. Slow-to-warm-up children adapt slowly to new environments. They tend to take a longer time to do tasks, and establish predictable sleeping and feeding patterns, when compared with easy children. They are more withdrawn, and are not very active.

Since children are already different from one another at birth, as a parent you should be sensitive to how you treat each one. If your first was an “easy” child, you may be extremely frustrated in dealing with your subsequent “difficult” child. Yet neither one chose to be born easy or difficult; that’s just the way they are.

In order to be an effective parent, you don’t necessarily have to get a temperament or psychological assessment of each child. The key thing to remember is this: children are people, too. Just like you, they have feelings. Just like you, they make mistakes. As their parents, you are there to teach them how to overcome their weaknesses so they can grow up happy, fulfilled and well-adjusted. Hopefully, in the process, you, too, will be fulfilled as a parent.

In the following, you will read some paragraphs from the point of view of a child. If they could express themselves better, I think this is what every child would want their parents to know. These paragraphs are followed with what I hope you will apply to your parenting journey.

Understand me

The child says: I seem to get scolded for everything I do. I just want to find out more about what I see around me. I don’t understand yet what danger is; I only feel the pain when something happens (or when I get spanked). Last night you spanked me for playing with the iron. But if you didn’t want me to play with it, why did you put me on the floor nearby to play? Sometimes you tell me not to do some things, but there are so many rules, I forget.

Sometimes you punish me without ever telling me what it is that I did wrong. You call me ‘bad’ and ‘naughty’ when you scold me. I wish I could tell you that I want to be good, but sometimes, I don’t know what that means. Teaching me doesn’t mean beating me before I’ve even done anything wrong. You just have to tell me. If I make a mistake, I will try again. All I need is for you to be patient enough to explain to me over and over again, until I get it right.

Dr Teoh says: Many parents seem to expect their children to know instinctively what they should and should not do. When parents complain that their children are disobedient, I ask them, “What is it you want your child to do?” In other words, how do you want your children to behave? If you want a family of quiet children who don’t speak unless spoken to, do their homework and study without being asked, never mess up the house, never play rough and never disobey, you aren’t thinking of children; you’re thinking of robots.

Most parents know better than to expect their children to be these perfect “angels without wings”, and yet when their children unintentionally do something wrong, they react with harsh words, punishment and even hitting. For the good of your whole family, always remember that children are people, too! Certainly, they are smaller, weaker, less self-controlled and less wise than you – but that’s precisely why they need you to care for them, protect them and, most importantly, show them exactly what you want them to do.

3 steps to good behaviour

  1. Reward and praise good behaviour immediately If your child did something praiseworthy last month but you only find the time to reward her now, she’ll see it as a treat, not a reward, and she won’t know what behaviour you’re trying to reinforce.
  2. Do what you say you’re going to do, whether good or bad If your child disobeys and you say you’re going to punish her, do it. If she begs you not to and you relent, you’re only teaching her that it’s probably safe to misbehave again since you’re not likely to punish her. On the other hand, if you’ve promised your children a special treat or reward for being good, not doing it will send them the subtle message that you can’t be trusted to keep your word. Gaining their trust is something you should do now, so that as they grow older they continue to see you as a reliable and trustworthy confidant.
  3. Reduce the structure and rigidity of your discipline system as your children get older As your children grow towards adulthood, they need to be treated more and more as adults. This does not mean you relinquish your responsibility and authority as a parent. But it does mean that the same child who as a toddler was told to do something “because you said so” shouldn’t be expected to still follow your instructions unquestioningly when he’s old enough to understand the deeper reasons behind your choice.

You don’t need to give a 30-minute lecture before allowing/forbidding an activity. Once you’ve stated your position, be firm about it and don’t succumb to begging or pleading. Yes, he is indeed adorable, and yes, he’s your flesh and blood – but if you don’t firmly stick to your own rules now, someday you’ll find yourself parents to spoilt, selfish brats.

Growing up means gaining awareness of the positive and negative elements around. Give your children the freedom (within reason) to explore, but establish limits and keep communication open so they know how you feel about certain issues. More importantly, as teenagers and young adults, they are most likely to reflect the values they grew up with.

Play with me

The child says: I wish you would spend more time playing with me. In the evening when you come home from work, you say you’re too tired. I have to play alone. After dinner, you still say you’re tired, but you watch TV until long after my bedtime. On weekends, I ask you to take me to the playground so I can meet my friends and play outside, but you take me to the shopping mall instead and buy me more toys. I don’t want any more toys. I just want you to play with me.

Dr Teoh says: Many parents don’t spend enough time playing with their children. Your child may have a roomful of toys, but if he plays alone, he is missing out on a vital tool for his social and personal development. Children need time to discover the world at their own pace, in their own way. They also need to know that they can have fun with their parents without their every action being dictated or turned into a reading, counting or music lesson. Some parents spend huge amounts of money on toys that ‘enhance development’, when actually there is enough in a child’s environment – the things and people around him – to keep him occupied for hours.

Play should be fun!

Parents today tend to aim for their children to be occupied with “purposeful play”. If the child doesn’t get to practise his counting, colour awareness or other skills while playing, the parents see that play as useless.

When I say parents should spend time playing with their children, I mean doing things that the child enjoys – not what the parents consider fun. Therefore, spending 2 hours on a tennis court with your child or dragging him to a swimming pool where a coach yells at him to do more laps does not count as play time.

When parents set out to play with their children, some are able to play on the child’s terms, and often they’ll happily discover that their children are intelligent, imaginative and creative, even if they have minimal toys to play with. You will make the same discovery if you put down your work for 15 minutes to 2 hours a day and play with your children, however and whatever they want to.

Learn with me

The child says: I go to school at 7 in the morning and finish at lunchtime. You usually pack lunch for me to eat in the car on the way from school to tuition. I wonder why I have to spend almost every afternoon at tuition class when I’ve already gone to school. After dinner, I just want to play, but I have so much homework to do. I heard you say for my birthday, you’re going to let me start piano lessons. I didn’t ask for piano lessons. I think once I start taking piano lessons, I won’t have time to do anything fun anymore.

Dr Teoh says: Our society seems to have forgotten that opportunities for learning are available everywhere, and not just in formal schooling. On top of the hours spent in class, children these days are also sent to additional tuition classes and extracurricular activities like sports, music, dancing and martial arts classes. Children may very well enjoy these activities as recreation, but it’s not very fair to force them to perform well in them and even take exams, when they don’t want to. If the child doesn’t enjoy an activity at all and you keep forcing him to do it, you are actually providing the perfect reason for him to rebel when he gets older.

Creative ways to learn

Learning doesn’t only take place within the four walls of a classroom. As you spend time on the following activites with your children, you’ll probably learn something new, too!

  • Visit the museum, science centre, parks and art galleries. At each place, let them touch as many exhibits as they can and discuss what they see. If you don’t know the answers to all their questions, promise to find out together by looking it up in a book or on the Internet.
  • Use the lessons that lie around the house. You don’t need a degree in engineering to do this. You can turn something as simple as preparing dinner into a basic science lesson. Show them how your bills are calculated and paid. This will not only improve their maths but teach them responsibility and show them that everything comes at a cost.
  • Turn even a visit to the doctor into a learning experience. On the way, talk about how doctors help sick children get better. Talk about the doctor listening to their heartbeat, taking their temperature or even the possibility of their having to have an injection. If you’re afraid of upsetting them, imagine how much more upset you’ll be if they get injected without prior warning!

Help Me

Don’t hit me

The child says: It was only a mistake. I didn’t understand what it was that you wanted me to do. I did it wrong and you hit me. My stomach always hurts now since I was hit. I can’t concentrate because of the pain, but I have to do well or else I know you will hit me again. Sometimes you hit me even though I haven’t done anything bad. Maybe I am just bad without knowing it, to deserve to be hit all the time like this.

Dr Teoh says: Contrary to popular belief, child abuse is not always committed by parents with a “violent streak”, who drink heavily, or who have personal problems of their own. Very often, it begins with a minor disobedience on the part of the child. The parents then hit the child out of anger, and the child responds by obeying. This leads the parents to believe that hitting the child will result in greater obedience. However, over time the child becomes immune to the hitting, and in response, the parents hit more and harder. Unfortunately, some parents feel that hitting the child harder will result in better behaviour.

Stop now!

If you have been hitting your child, even if you perceive the hitting as light or harmless, stop now. Your child’s physical and emotional health is at stake, and so is your relationship with him. There are other ways to handle disobedience (see ‘Understand Me’).

Remember, punishment without proper teaching, guidance and reward does not improve the child’s behaviour. It only damages his mental health and strains his relationship with you.

Don’t leave me

The child says: Papa, why are you packing your things to go away? I thought you told me we would always be a family. Mama says you’re not coming back. She says you don’t love us anymore. What will I do without you? Why don’t you love me anymore?

Dr Teoh says: Children are deeply affected by the divorce or separation of their parents. They have never known the parents as anything other than this pair that has raised, provided for and cared for them all this while.

There are generally two possible ways in which children may react to their parents’ divorce. The first is to blame themselves for what has happened, ie, “I am so bad that Daddy/Mummy does not want me anymore.” This then results in depression and low self esteem.

The second possible response is for the child to try to stop his parents from splitting up. This is especially common with slightly older children. They try to be the “intermediary” between parents, but most often this only makes the fighting worse, and the child gets caught in the middle.

The eldest child of divorcing parents usually takes it upon him/herself to become the new “head of the household”. As the parents spend time quarreling over property and custody, the child takes over the responsibility for younger siblings’ material and emotional needs. This is not healthy as the eldest child still has plenty of growing up to do.

Even if you are not contemplating divorce or separation, you and your spouse need to work together to overcome any problems you may have in your marriage. Children learn by example, and parents are their #1 examples. If you and your spouse are constantly arguing, insulting or backstabbing one another, your children will learn to do the same. If you continually run into conflict but choose not to deal with it and just bottle your feelings up, your children will learn to do the same when they face trouble. As a parent, you have a responsibility to solve your marital problems for the sake of your child’s future.

Moving for work?

If a work posting to a different town or city has you away from home regularly for weeks or days at a time, you may need to stop and consider how it will affect your children to have one parent absent for days on end. Children need the constant support and love of both parents.

Dealing with death

The death of a loved one is difficult for anyone to deal with, not least a child. Children may not fully understand that death is permanent and inevitable, but the idea of it will most probably frighten them. They are reassured by the presence of the surviving parent, or other close relatives.

If your child, or a child you know, loses someone he loves, don’t underestimate his need to grieve and deal with the death at his own pace. Below are some of the ways you can approach the subject with the child:

  • Tell him that the person has died (or passed away) and gone to another place, not that the person has “gone to sleep” as this will cause the child to fear falling asleep.
  • Explain gently that the person will not come back. Young children may have difficulty understanding this; you don’t have to keep telling them. In time, they’ll understand.
  • Tell the child that it’s normal to miss the person, and that it’s all right for him to share feelings or memories about that person with you.
  • Allow the child to attend the funeral, if possible. This will help him to say goodbye and prevent any fantasies that the deceased is not really dead but has only gone on an extended trip, or is avoiding him.
  • Give him space and time to grieve. Like a physical wound, the grief experienced from losing a loved one takes time to heal.

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