Thomas & Chess on Behavioral Individuality

Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess discuss temperament qualities in children.

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Posted 7/30/19: "Got Change?"

"There is this Bill Watterson Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. Hobbes is sitting behind Calvin who is steering a fast moving wagon. Calvin says: I thrive on change. Hobbes: YOU?! You threw a fit this morning because your mom put less jelly on your toast yesterday. Calvin: I thrive on making other people change..

Adaptability is one of the big ticket (or I think of it that way) temperament characteristics. It's a measure of how we handle change. Does change excite you or your child or make you cringe? Adaptability varies for all of us. We use it up throughout the day and when we have a lot of changes going on it depletes our adaptability. We all have varying amounts of adaptability under even ideal circumstances. People who are higher in activity and intensity often have a high appetite for life that can at least initially override reluctance due to low adaptability. Challenges show up later, perhaps seemingly out of the blue once the novelty and excitement have worn off. Difficulty with change is very apparent in people who are low in activity and intensity.

Children who are low in adaptability have trouble with day to day changes and transitions. Infants who are low in adaptability may not sleep well in new settings, may fuss when changed or moved from one setting to another, have difficulty adjusting to new care providers, a new food or being weaned. Low adapting children may be fussy, tantrum or protest when you are out of a favorite food item, when a favorite piece of clothing is dirty or missing, there is a last minute change of plans about what's for dinner so that you are serving something unexpected, even if they like it, or a routine is changed. They are not reacting to the content of the change but to the change itself.

Parents of low adapting children often find small daily events like getting out the door in the morning (lots of transitions in a short amount of time) and daily tasks such as getting dressed and brushing teeth very challenging. These parents often say they feel like they have a teenager already with all the stalling and attempts to negotiate. Low adapting children often dig their heels in when change or transitions are upon them to try and avoid or minimize change."

We expect that both children and adults may feel challenged by big or unwelcome changes. Smaller and welcome changes can also be stressful. The Holmes-Rahe research based Life Stress Inventory has been around for over fifty years. It assigns a point value for various changes. The list includes a lot of obvious big life events such as divorce, deaths, injury or illness and being fired. The list also includes numerous smaller changes and changes that are likely to be positive such as marriage, outstanding personal achievement, pregnancy and vacation.

It's interesting to note that the Life Stress Inventory doesn't distinguish between low and high adapting people. Even if you are not uncomfortable with change your system registers some stress from it.

If you or your child are low in adaptability the challenge with change is not about the content, it's about the novelty, even when the change is something likable once familiar. There is nothing that everyone likes or likes right away, not Disneyland, not ice cream, a kitten or puppy, a gift or the beach.

Once you know that you or your child has a hard time with change you can prepare and manage adjustment discomforts. Be mindful. Validate your child's feelings, your own feelings. Reduce novelty by breaking it down into small pieces. Lots of self care and familiar routines help to make change more manageable. People who are low in adaptability like to know what's going to happen next.

Children who are low in adaptability often experience direct communication as intrusive. Concrete reminders of what's going to happen next, wall calendars and lists can be used with even very young children when pictures are used. This back door approach can be used in a variety of ways. Use a puppet, stuffed animal, Lego or action figure to do the talking. Wonder aloud without insisting on eye contact or a response. Begin though by validating feelings. That helps us and our children to manage feelings. Receptivity will then increase.

A flexible style, validating feelings, back door approaches, offering two finite choices and humor encourage a flexible response. Well worth the effort.

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