Thomas & Chess on Behavioral Individuality

Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess discuss temperament qualities in children.

Temperament Blog

 Alice Shannon's Blog:
 Listening to Temperament: How Our Innate Temperaments Derail Us, Save Us and Transform Us

Finding Enough: a Call to Flexibility and Filtering, a Challenging Opportunity for Highly Sensitive Parents to Thrive. Posted 4/1/20.

What will our children do in the morning if they do not see us fly?



I am delighted that Elaine Aron asked me to write this self care guide for HS parents. As a psychotherapist who has worked with many HSP's and as an HS parent myself I am intimately acquainted with challenges particular to HS parents. Raising children is an extended period when time, energy and often money are in short supply. Finding time for yourself may sometimes feel close to impossible. Nevertheless replenishing yourself is a necessity for you and your children. My hope is that reading this blog post will encourage and inspire you in this direction and help to make self care feel decidedly doable.

Taking care of yourself and your children is a package deal. Your self care makes you a better parent. You both win.

Temperament: Our personal wellspring

Temperament is the how of behavior rather than the why, an inborn style. If you are reading this it's likely that you have identified yourself as high in sensitivity. Elaine Aron's research in this area is invaluable to the significant minority of us who are HSP's and to many more people who have HSP's in their lives. Sensitivity is one aspect of temperament. Other dimensions include activity, intensity, persistence/frustration tolerance, adaptability, approach/withdrawal, regularity, mood and distractibility. Pediatrician Harvey Karp refers to the newborn period as the fourth trimester. New babies are experiencing and adjusting to monumental changes. Once infants are more settled at four months of age temperament can be defined. Temperament helps us to recognize and normalize individual differences and fine tune best responses. This is especially useful if you or your children have extremes in your temperament. Parenting information and advice tend to address the majority of children in the middle of the temperament continuum. Any number of parenting practices are likely to work well with temperamentally moderate children. There are significant minorities of children however with one or more extremes in their temperament. Those extremes are also normal. If you or your children are on the edges of the continuum you may have more parenting challenges and less information about your experience. Temperament gives us a neutral way to understand individual style. When you know that your partner is high in adaptability and has an easy time with changes and transitions it may help you to remember that breezing through is their style rather than an attempt to pressure you. You may each feel frustrated by each other's speed but recognizing it as style rather than attempts to thwart each other tends to make the experience feel lighter. You may still feel challenged by your loudly expressive highly intense child but it's likely to help if you realize that it's an innate temperament style and not just thoughtless behavior. I needed to know about temperament as a twenty- three year old first time mother of a very fussy baby. My son was two before I learned about temperament. Two tough years. I welcomed a new to me temperament lens which detailed a wider and more varied description of normal behaviors in children. It gave me a way to understand my son's disposition which in itself vastly improved our lives. The research I read was largely descriptive and focused on children. It was a definite step in the right direction even if it didn't yet speak to my temperament and gave me little in the way of specific parenting direction. I am a highly sensitive person and the daughter of a highly sensitive mother. It would have helped to have that understanding then too. My highly sensitive, intense and very active daughter was born nearly five years after my son. Her daughter was born last year with a very similar temperament. I have worked with countless HSP's and people of varied temperaments of all ages, many of them parents. Our innate temperaments can derail us when we don't recognize them and save and transform us when we do. The more we understand about our temperament, our children's and partner's temperament the more we can be our best selves and help our children to be their best selves. My life and work has been informed by all aspects of temperament for many years now. I know my way around temperament. Come on, I'll show you around.

Use temperament as a neutral resource for helping to understand and support individual styles in your family. Talk about individual temperament or style in your family. Getting curious about each other's temperament can foster an ongoing conversation about finding respectful ways to honor each individual in the family. You can find out more about temperament on my blog and website.

Your foundation:

Strengthening your emotional core:

Understanding your sensitivity:

There are many ways to be highly sensitive. Sensitivity includes the five senses and emotional sensitivity. Being highly sensitive means being highly sensitive to at least one and probably more than one of those dimensions. HSP's vary according to areas of sensitivity, other temperament characteristics, personality and environment. There are four core HSP characteristics. Processing deeply is a trait consistent to HSP's. Deep thinking and feeling can be a creative, introspective boon. In periods of stress however, deep processing can morph into getting lost in challenging thoughts and feelings turning up the dial on anxiety. That in can lead to over stimulation, another HSP core trait. Over stimulation can result from external influences, such as loud children and just as easily from internal experience. HSP's also share the core characteristic of empathy, being very emotionally responsive. There is a lot to appreciate about empathy. However if your empathy is directed at your children and others and not also to you it can be costly. Well managed empathy calls for restraint. It includes you, and must start with you so that you aren't depleted. The fourth core trait is being sensitive to subtle stimuli. HSP's often notice details that others miss.

It's easy to get derailed:

You may have noticed that all of the core HSP traits can be assets or challenges. Knowing about yourself allows you to manage challenges so that you are not derailed by your temperament. Good self care can provide the means for your temperament to be a wellspring you can draw from. I tell my HS clients that while self care is important for everyone it's especially important if you are highly sensitive. That can be even more true if you are a parent. The developmental stage of parenting young children can be filled with joy and wonder. The very experience of parenting children of any age, a round the clock job can leave many HS parents feeling in a state of continual depletion, over stimulated, overwhelmed and starving for some down time. Mothers disappear all the time. Even the very best of them vanish. They take long hot baths and don't want to be disturbed. They get lost in books or sleep or sadness, in bitterness and anger. They have their own dreams and troubles. They want the best for their children. Desperately they need a break. They are there but not present. Mothers of course are not the only ones who disappear. I was thinking of my own HS mother when I wrote that. Who among us does not retreat sometimes even from ourselves? Overwhelmed HS mothers and fathers may get irritable, spend longer hours outside the house working, exercising or running errands or longing for some time away from the fray of parenthood. Find your wellspring through self care:

The Fleetwood Mac song, Sara, has a line, "Drowning in the sea of love". HSP's can be prone to drowning in the sea of life. Try to notice when you're getting over stimulated or overwhelmed and attend to your feelings. Pay attention to your personal lifelines. There are any number of possibilities in how you might experience any given circumstance. Your response is the part you have control over. How you respond helps to make the waves more or less challenging. Your deep responsiveness means not only that you are easily affected by adversity but that you can also be deeply responsive to self care. We hear a lot these days about the importance of a strong physical core. It's also important to have a strong emotional core. We get that by self care that refuels us. Self care is different for everyone. Some people find gardening or cooking refueling. For other people those are just chores. Some people find a long hot bath or shower replenishing. Others find them boring. You know when something is refueling for you by the feeling of relief afterwards. The same things should feel lighter. Screen time can be enjoyable and relaxing but doesn't refuel. After screen time you are likely to feel just as you did before. Everyone should have multiple ways to refuel so that no matter your finances, your time, the weather or childcare there is always something you can do. When your stress goes up for whatever reason internal or external, turn up your self care to match it otherwise your stress will have the upper hand. Small efforts at self care are important but may not fully address your innermost emotional core needs. Meditation for even five minutes a day can have a needed deeper restorative impact. It's a time to let go of doing or thinking or feeling and just Be.

The stronger your emotional core is the easier it will be to surf the waves.

You as resource:

Listening to your emotional thirst

When we are physically thirsty we tend to respond to our thirst without question. We're not likely to ask ourselves why we're thirsty, if other people are thirsty or if we ought to be thirsty. Usually we just get a drink. We might ignore our thirst when we're busy but it doesn't go away and our bodies let us know loudly when we pause just how much we are in need of a drink. When you feel stressed, irritable, anxious or emotionally uncomfortable in any way welcome the feeling in that it is a reminder of your emotional thirst just as you welcome the feeling of physical thirst for giving you valuable information. Be a journalist or a scientist. Gather information without judgment. It's not good or bad information it's all good to know. HSP's can be prone to judging and questioning themselves. Should I be feeling this, is there a good reason for me to be feeling this, why am I feeling this way? Be neutral and nonjudgmental about how you're feeling just like you would with a physical thirst. When you stop to question, to try and justify or explain your feelings you are stepping away from yourself as resource and creating a side project. You don't need to know why in the moment you are emotionally thirsty anymore than you need to know why you are physically thirsty. Is it because it's a hot day, because you haven't had enough to drink, because you went to the gym? Any which way you just need to answer your thirst with a drink. Use yourself as a resource. Listen to how you feel and be attentive to your emotional thirst. When you are coming from a neutral place, collecting information without question or judgment ahas and connecting the dots will come together organically. It's much more efficient than a side project.

Start by acknowledging how you feel. You might be able to identify one or more very specific feelings, anger or anxiety for instance. You might or might not know why you feel as you do. All you need to know is what you know even if it's somewhat vague. Maybe you're feeling irritable, or overwhelmed or just generally uncomfortable. Acknowledge how you feel, to yourself or out loud. Pause to allow yourself to feel how you feel. That in itself will turn the dial down. Spend a little time with how you're feeling if you are able. You can talk about it, think about it, write about it, scream or cry about it but for no more than 15 minutes. You're not looking for understanding, for getting to the bottom of things or feeling ready to move on. Your appointment time with your feelings should be 15 minutes or less. Put the leftovers on a figurative shelf to pick up at the next appointment. This may be hard to do but remind yourself you can pick things up at the next appointment. Now you will be more receptive to self care. Step outside or look at a calming photo, think of a calming place. Do some conscious breathing. If you are in the midst of caring for children you can still do this! Say out loud, "I'm having a hard time!" Walking into your feeling helps to turn the dial down. And it's great modeling for your children. It's not realistic to be endlessly patient! Next announce that you need to sit down for a few minutes or step aside with your young child. This new plan will help you to manage your challenging feelings instead of being managed by them. This is especially helpful with anxiety. Anxiety can be very tenacious. It's like the most obnoxious salesperson trying to sell you something you don't want, don't need, can't afford and yet somehow you're buying every time. Anxiety wants you to spend a lot of time thinking about your worries. Being highly sensitive doesn't cause anxiety. HSP's are deep thinkers and tend to over attend to thoughts and feelings. Anxiety for HSP's can induce the perfect storm of rumination opening the door to letting anxiety have the upper hand. The more time you spend with your anxiety the bigger it will grow. In all the years I've worked as a therapist I've never had a single client tell me that all the time they spent with anxiety was valuable and worked out well. Still, in the moment anxiety is very convincing. Trying to ignore or discount your feelings however will not make them go away. In fact they are likely to get louder and stronger, just like a physical thirst to get your attention. When you walk towards your feelings instead of away you are taking the first step in managing them instead of being managed by them. One of the ways we impede our own self care is when we question our need for it, judging ourselves and feeling the need to justify time for ourselves. As a parent you may find it challenging and or even very challenging to find time for yourself. I sometimes hear from parents and other busy people that they have no time for self care. It can of course be very challenging to fit self care into the sea of life, especially with children. You may not be able to do or do many of the things you counted on for self care that would or did require more time, money or childcare before you became a parent. You may need to be creative and flexible to devise new ways to refuel that work in your life now as it is. The very experience of running on empty can get in the way of self care. You may feel that you are so depleted it would take something huge to make a difference and put yourself on hold for a wished for day or week or more of your dreams. Smaller daily self care may seem pointless as though it wouldn't and couldn't make a dent in how you're feeling. The very act of thinking about and trying to fit in self care may feel like even more on your overfull plate adding to your stress. Even if you have some big wonderful break ahead of you we all need daily self care. Your challenges, stress and anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed won't wait for a convenient time! Self care is not just another thing to add to your already overfull plate. It shifts things. When we are in the midst of stress we tend to focus on concrete things we would like to be different. You might have a to do list you want to get through. You might want your child to sleep through the night, your partner to be more supportive or your child to stop whining. Don't let those things be in charge of your well being. You don't need self care when you've taken care of everything. You need it right now. Focus on what you have control of and manage your stress rather than letting it manage you. A big part of what drives stress up is the story we tell ourselves. Your brain can work for you or against you. There may be concrete stressors in our lives but what tends to make them heavier or lighter is how we carry them. When we judge ourselves it drives stress up. When we spend a lot of time going over challenges that makes them bigger. Anxiety particularly loves that. When we take what I call a big negative leap and go to the oh my god place, what if I never have time to myself, what if this means I'm a bad parent, what if I can't do this we turn the dial up. When you try to evaluate yourself or your life at a tough time you won't come up with anything good. Note your concerns and set them aside for later. When you pick them up later when you are in a better place there is apt to be less there because you haven't been feeding your worries. And you in a calmer place are better equipped to handle what remains.

Listen and attend to your emotional thirst. Stress and anxiety won't wait for a convenient time. You feel what you feel. Going towards a feeling by acknowledging it turns it down making you receptive to the self care you need.

Parenting as teaching and learning:

A nurturing life for the whole family.

As an HS parent you may be especially attuned to your child. This is part of what can make parenting both wonderful and challenging. Noticing that your child is having a hard time for HS parents often feels something like, I feel badly that you're having a hard time and I'm having a hard time that you're having a hard time. Paying attention to your self care and what you are telling yourself can make a big difference in how you carry and respond to parenting challenges. It's not your job to make all things right for your child. It's not even possible. You will be building lasting skills to help your child manage their feelings instead of trying to fix them. Way easier and more possible too! A strong emotional core will help you to carry emotional challenges, yours and your child's without that leading you into a sink hold of evidence that you are a bad parent or that something is wrong with your child. I have a bumper sticker on a shelf in my office that says, "Don't believe everything you think". It's a reminder often very relevant to HSP's to filter. Your brain can work for you or against you. Try not to think or do more than you need to. Start from the mildest possible outlook. Even when your concerns or discomforts loom large begin at the beginning. Look at the situation from the most benign perspective possible collecting information without judgment or rushing to figure or fix things. Respond with the least amount of intervention possible. You can always do more if that isn't enough. Temperament can be a big help towards understanding your particular child's variation of normal. Sometimes just thinking about a situation differently makes a big difference. Responding differently can make a big difference. It's not about a bigger and bigger response. It's about an effective response. And if it's effective you don't have to work as hard. When we are short on time or patience we tend to be more direct and no nonsense with our children. If you're trying to get out the door in the morning and feeling pressured by time you might be more inclined to tell your child some variation of just do it! Dealing with parenting challenges in public can be especially stressful for HS parents who may feel acutely uncomfortable about the possibility of being judged as a parent who isn't doing a good job. That can lead to trying to quickly nip things in the bud, reminding children of rules, expectations and consequences and asking for swift compliance. That's asking children for a flexible response, to transition and comply, in an inflexible way. It doesn't work well. A flexible approach on your part is much more likely to elicit a flexible response from your children. A flexible style doesn't mean changing what you are asking of children it means changing how you ask them. A flexible parenting style encourages, teaches and begets a flexible response from children.

When children are upset due to hunger, fatigue, their mood or temperament, it's not a teachable moment. Instructions at that time even when delivered in a calm and reasonable tone can lead to an escalated response from children. Validating your child's feelings will deescalate a volatile situation if done soon enough, which will make things easier on both of you. This is the best place to start and may be enough in itself. Validating a child's feelings is a flexible teaching response. It helps children learn to manage their feelings which builds important self regulation skills. And it works well in the moment for both parent and child. When you validate a child's feelings make sure your response is brief and heartfelt. "You sound really angry/upset/sad, or You really wanted to go to your friend's house." It should be all about them no comments about how you've felt that way too, or others have, or that you understand, that's for your child to decide. Any reasoning, explanations or requests should wait until your child is calm. Keep it simple. Remember the sole and very important teachable possibility in this moment is helping your child to manage their feelings. The bonus for you is that you are then not likely to be dealing with tantrums or other meltdowns. Other flexible responses including having a do over. With young children you can be dramatic, call a do over, walk out the door, shake it off and come back in and start over. It's face saving for parents and children of all ages and models and teaches that rather than aiming for perfection we can aim for the doable goal of catching ourselves. Just because we're going down a road that goes nowhere good doesn't mean we can't catch ourselves and do differently.

Humor is a flexible approach as is offering two finite choices, both acceptable to you. A back door or indirect approach is a flexible style. Instead of insisting on eye contact or speaking directly to your child talk to the air or the ceiling or have a stuffed animal, puppet, lego or action figure do the talking. Direct questions to children, how are you feeling, why did you do it, etc are not the best bet. Kids often respond by saying they don't know either because they really don't or because they're uncomfortable. This is particularly true for HS and children low in adaptability who often find a direct approach intrusive. Wonder aloud or have your character talk. Your child may respond or not. Even if they say nothing they are more likely to take in what you're saying and may respond at another time. If related behavior improves you can be sure you were on the right track.. No matter how attuned you are to your child, how caring and involved you are you will not get things right all the time.. Children who are high in intensity in particular often struggle with self regulation. You can devote a day to them and they are likely to ask for more. You can not give your child enough time and attention to fill them up. They are not a cup. It can be hard for a lot of parents to hear that their child wants more they than gave or have to give. HS parents may hear such comments as evidence that they aren't a good enough parent or that their child is troubled, lacking in self esteem or appreciation. Validate your child's feeling, they had such a good time they're ready for more, they're not ready for the day to end. This helps them to manage their feelings and build self regulation. And help yourself manage the feeling of not being enough.

Notice I wrote the feeling of not enough. You may not be able to produce more down time for yourself or give your child as much of you as they ask for. You can manage the feeling. And I don't mean just get over it! Strengthen your emotional core then you will know. You are enough.


John and Julie Gottman are husband and wife psychologists who have done extensive research on relationships and the ingredients needed for a healthy and happy one. They offer a wealth of practical relationship information and support and some on parenting as well. Short on time? Sign up for their free twice weekly email, The Marriage Minute, with short spot on articles and videos.

Insight Timer is a free App offering a wealth of free guided mediations and related resources for both adults and children. Selections are plentiful and include specific concerns such as anxiety, depression, self compassion and sleep. Choices also include options that are five minutes are less.

Harvey Karp-pediatrician, researcher and author of, The Happiest Baby on the Block writes about the newborn period as the fourth trimester. Knowing how to understand and support a newborn's particular needs is invaluable for both infants and parents. He writes about the importance of beginning to validate a child's needs early on in his book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block. And there is also, The Happiest Baby Guide to Sleep.

Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel is a book about how parent's who make sense of their own childhood help both themselves and their child to thrive.

Ron Taffel is a psychologist and writer of numerous parenting books. I haven't read one I didn't find both practical and enlightening. He often speaks to temperament, writes about middle childhood and has wonderful books for parenting teenagers.

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