Speaking on Special Needs & Temperament

Special needs, diverse abilities, individual differences. Over the years I have learned quite a bit about these words. What I have come to believe is this: all of us to some extent have special needs. As human beings, we all ‘need’ different things to help us learn, grow, and engage with the world. Some of us encounter more obstacles than others. Ultimately, those who care for us, guide us, and love us come to understand what our individual needs are.

When it comes to understanding temperament alongside diagnosed special needs and diverse abilities, we can utilize similar parenting tools. Temperament tools are ‘universal,’ Meaning they can be utilized for all children, regardless of ability.

When we give a five-minute warning to the child that is slow-to-adapt in transitions, it doesn’t matter what their ability is. All children can benefit from a ‘heads up’ about a transition. If we pack a bag of extra snacks for the child that has an irregular biological clock, we can do the same for a child with a diagnosed medical need. Similar parenting tools for all different kinds of individual needs.

As the parent of a child with diverse abilities, knowing that there are parenting tools I can tap into ‘just like everyone else’ made me feel that for that moment in time, my daughter and I could utilize the same ‘parenting book’ as others. Utilizing the tools specific to a child’s temperament, helped me recognize that ALL children have individual needs. When caregivers recognize the benefit of understanding individual temperament and how to engage specific temperament tools to guide children’s behavior (regardless of ability), both adults and children can be impacted positively.

Teen Traits

The teen years can be a whirlwind of changes, emotions, and growth! Not only the physical changes to the teen body, but the pressure that teens may feel from their peers to engage in risk-taking behaviors like smoking, early sexual experimentation, and alcohol or drugs. Teens wanting to “fit in” and who don’t have the refusal skills to use in high-pressure situations may feel very conflicted.

As teens age, they may engage in more social opportunities, and teens are likely influenced by individuals other than their parents. Neighborhood friends, school peers, and sports teammates all can influence how a teen responds in any given situation. Although parents have communicated boundaries, family values, and expectations for behavior, the pressure to belong and be accepted by others can impact the decisions that teens will ultimately make.

Decision-making is such a critical life skill for all, and for the teen whose brain is not fully developed until later adolescence, making the very best decision in any given situation may be impacted by emotions, peer pressure, temperament and so very much more. Parents can do the following things to support their teen as they navigate the teen years:

  • Intentionally listen to your family members
  • Be consistent when dealing with misbehavior
  • Involve family members, when reasonable, in developing rules and consequences for behavior
  • Encourage family members to learn new skills (4-H, Scouts, Youth Group, FFA, etc)
  • Check in with family members to encourage reflection on successes, setbacks and growth
  • Provide an environment in which kids can try new things and challenge themselves safely
  • Help kids set personal goals that align with their values

Additional teen resources for Understanding Emotional Changes; or for Understanding Physical Changes; Resources for teens and their Changes in Thinking.

School-Ager Set Point

The school-age years can be very busy with a flurry of activity for kids and added responsibilities for parents as they try to keep up! Depending on the age and temperament of your child, the school years can be both challenging and exciting, all at the same time.

Consider a school-age child who is curious, energetic, and ready to explore everything offered in and out of school time! For every child like this, we can also find a child who is more cautious, who finds the busyness of school overwhelming, or even overstimulating.

It is a fine dance for teachers, parents, and family members to provide the appropriate amount of stimulation, education, and opportunities all while supporting individual differences of kids.

Routines continue to be a valued asset for school-age kids, who need at least 8 or more hours of sleep, and healthy nutrition coupled with plenty of time for play. Spending time outdoors can provide both opportunities for play and additional exercise. Riding bikes, exploring a nature preserve, or hiking with friends are a few things that school-age children may like to do.

Routines help kids to know what to expect and when to expect them. So, for school-age children, knowing what time the bus arrives to pick them up can help them decide how early to get up and get ready while leaving time to eat some breakfast. For the school-age child who is sleepy in the morning, their routine may look different and that is ok. Perhaps they sleep a few minutes longer and choose to eat breakfast at school.

Knowing and respecting the individual differences of all kids and families can help everyone plan for and enjoy a successful school experience.

Preschooler Predisposition

Making predictions when it comes to kids is part of the job of a parent. Do you predict that today serving grilled cheese sandwiches will be met with glee or disappointment? Do you predict that having to make a quick trip to the store will be met with delight or dread by your preschool child? Depending on the age and stage of your child, your prediction may change. What is acceptable to one child may not be well accepted for another child, even in the same family.

Parents with a child who is three or four years of age will soon experience the preschool years. A time of excitement for some children and a time of worry or anticipation for others. A few factors, including temperament, interaction with other children or siblings, and the network of family support, will all impact how children respond.

Most children in this preschool age range have developed both fine and gross motor skills and enjoy reading and talking with others. Some parents will describe their preschooler as a chatterbox. Social skills are developing, and children often cue parents as to how they are feeling through their behavior. These parents can usually predict how their child may respond to any new situation. You may have seen the preschool child who is so nervous and fearful who may hide behind their parent hoping they can hop back into the car and return home to play and forget the school experience. Then there is the other child who bounds out of the car toward the school door, not waiting for anyone to direct them to the right classroom, only to find a room full of toys and other children just waiting for the class to begin.

Learning to help a distractable child to focus as they navigate the new preschool environment or assisting an intense child who may talk loudly to use an indoor voice will be some of the challenges parents face during the preschool years.

The Centers For Disease Control has a great child development resource parents may find very helpful! In addition, The Science of Parenting team is exploring the relationship between child temperament and growth and development milestones in this season of the podcast. Be sure to check out the preschool resources available at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Toddler Tendencies

The toddler years are a time of learning and growth! As these children become more mobile, parents may be on high alert to protect and provide safety for these newfound movers! Each new skill learned is a proud moment for parents as they may be following the “Ages and Stages” milestone charts for assurance that their child is developing on schedule.

Each child, however, will develop at their own pace and will learn new skills in their own time. The guidelines are a helpful reference. Every day is an opportunity to help a child learn language through talking and reading to your child. Reading can happen anywhere and doesn’t just have to be at bedtime. Large and fine motor skills are developing and opportunities to enjoy outdoor play take on even greater importance!  

How much your toddler engages in play, learning, and talking can also be impacted by their individual temperament! Children who are sensitive may need individuals who communicate with a soft voice. Children who notice everything happening around them may need to have fewer play choices so that they can experience success.

Do you have a toddler who reacts to situations with intensity? This too is a temperament trait and learning to help your child navigate intensity can help you both reduce the stress and anxiety that intense emotions can raise. A toddler who is slower to engage in play with others may need the helpful encouragement of another adult or teacher.

The Science of Parenting team is exploring the relationship between child temperament and growth and development milestones in this season of the podcast. Be sure to check out the toddler resources available at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

From the podcast:

A full chart of temperament as it pertains to a toddler, as discussed in the podcast.

Infant Inclinations

A new baby joins the family and immediately parents look for cues from the infant to begin the communication process. The temperament and disposition of the new infant is foundational to who this child will become, and parents soon recognize the unique way this child begins to communicate.

Each of us is gifted from birth with a set of temperament traits that are expressed as we grow and develop and live day to day! The mood we have, our adaptability to situations, or our regularity! Everyone has a different combination of traits that create a unique being and as parents learning the fine dance of how these temperament traits can look different for each child is a task. 

In a family with several children, one may be an early riser, full of energy and ready to go all the time, while another child is a little slower to engage and takes more time to participate. Having a set of strategies to help one child slow down, while having a different strategy to encourage another to engage is helpful. Be sure to review the season three podcast featuring sleep and infants. In addition, explore the blog by author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka for additional support.

The Science of Parenting team is exploring the relationship between child temperament and growth and development milestones in this season of the podcast. Be sure to listen as Mackenzie and Lori explore the temperament traits and how they are expressed depending on a child’s age or stage of development! 

From the podcast:

A full chart of the nine temperament traits in an infant, as described in the podcast.
A chart capturing the green, yellow, and red zones as described in the podcast.

What is Temperament?

Parenting practices rarely are one size fits all. In fact, most parents will admit that because each child is unique, their approach to child guidance and support is also individualized. The good news is that parents can find a variety of resources to help in answering questions about temperament, child growth and development, child health, and more.

The Science of Parenting is one resource with several ways to connect including a podcast, blog, social media, and educational trainings! Often parents will find helpful information related to child nutrition, vaccinations, or well-child visits at a local health department. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has an excellent resource for families entitled Spend Smart Eat Smart, designed to assist families plan, shop and cook recipes at home.

Parents can also learn about what their children might need through interaction, observation, and conversation with their children. Infants express their needs through facial expressions, emotions, and gestures! Preschoolers are now adding talk and questions to the ways they can communicate with parents and others. School-agers and teens are often ready to enjoy more independence and parents often still provide limits and boundaries designed to protect kids while still allowing room for more freedom. Every age brings opportunities for parents to encourage development while providing safety and protection too.

This season on The Science of Parenting, co-hosts Mackenzie Johnson and Lori Korthals will explore two topics: Developmental Milestones and Temperament and will discuss how together, these two topics influence how parents can effectively support, communicate, and celebrate the whole family!

From the podcast:

Reflecting for Resilience

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted children and families in a variety of ways, both positively and negatively. You might wonder, how could families be impacted positively by a pandemic?  I can report, from responses to a questionnaire collected prior to delivering a webinar on pandemic parenting by members of the Science of Parenting team, many families found unique and supportive impacts from this most uncertain pandemic.

Families reported enjoying more time together at home. Because many heeded the advice to “stay home,” families appreciated newfound time for family meals and game and movie nights. Kids gathered in the kitchen and picked up some skills in meal preparation, including clean up! Parents reported that they enjoyed this time of bonding with their children.

Siblings learned they had to share screen time, internet usage, and even study space in the same house. Families learned to plan for and to negotiate needs among the family members, including some parents who found themselves working from home during the pandemic.

The pandemic had many unintended consequences. The network of face-to-face social support from neighbors and extended family members was very limited! The opportunities to share in rituals of birthday parties, graduations, and wedding celebrations, to name a few, were interrupted. Some families postponed events or simply found alternate ways to celebrate. The “drive-by” parties were very popular last year!

Parents took the time to listen to the stress, anxiety, and unexpected disappointments that family members expressed and then brainstormed together how to manage the feelings. Often, being heard and getting the chance to speak feelings out loud was a healing release. Some families used exercise and nature walks to release some of the stress they were experiencing. Journaling was another coping technique for both youth and adults. Keeping the lines of communication open during this time proved a positive protective factor.

As families navigated the pandemic, they learned tools that will translate into resilience during future tough times. Not sure how? Be sure to take time to reflect on what went well, what was tough, and how you learned from it all. You are RESILIENT.

How to Repair

When families experience “tough times”, it can impact the feelings and behaviors of family members. And when family members act out in response to the “tough times” parents may have to set limits or deliver consequences that may be met with further hostility, anger or additional outbursts.

These times are not comfortable for parents or for children, but they happen, and all families must find reasonable ways to manage and cope! Unacceptable behaviors may stem from disappointment when a child doesn’t get their way. When emotions are high, we can act unreasonable. We let the emotions drive our behaviors. Waiting until our emotions are regulated once again is important.

Our emotions stem from one portion of the brain, and our decision-making capability from a separate portion of the brain. To think clearly, and make a good decision, we need to calm down, and become re-regulated. We can say things we don’t mean when we are caught up in emotion! Using the STOP, BREATHE, TALK campaign is a great way to get ourselves and our family members re-regulated, so we can talk through the tough times.

This means that when we find ourselves in the heat of the moment, and when emotions are running high, we STOP what we are doing and pause. We then take some deep cleansing breaths; next, we think about how we want to talk about the situation we experienced. We intentionally change the direction of the emotionally charged situation, to prevent ourselves from acting out in ways that are harsh or emotionally unacceptable.

Adults and children alike who recover from an emotional outburst can benefit from learning how to apologize and make amends. The ability to tell someone else that we are sorry for our words or behaviors takes courage. Parents who model how to apologize can help their children learn to do the same. Once an apology is extended, the ability to accept the apology and move forward is essential.

The “tough times” are also teachable times. We learn to express our regrets and say “I’m sorry” and discuss how to prevent the same things from happening again.

Renegotiating Rules

Everywhere we go, we experience rules that must be followed. Rules for driving; Rules for playing sports; Rules for how to spend grant funds; Rules for playing board games. Rules are essential and provide the structure necessary for people to work together and get along.

When people know the rules, this creates a sense of comfort. Both children and adults can anticipate what is expected and feel safe and secure. Parents often create a schedule or routine for their children that can help reduce feelings of chaos by providing flexible but consistent information and a daily structure that kids can anticipate.

Kids can play an important part in the rule making process. Giving kids some say in developing the rules and any consequences helps them to remember and take responsibility. When parents and kids can together have a “rules” conversation, parents can honestly share reasons for the boundaries and limits that reflect the family values and helps to keep everyone safe.

The rules that are established should reflect the age and ability of the children they are designed to protect. Helping children to meet the rules and using reminders can be helpful for young children who are very stimulated by their environment and excited about the opportunities before them.

Research reveals “specific, warm, concrete, understandable directions and expectations can improve child behaviors, prevent dangerous circumstances, reduce caregivers’ frustrations, and foster children’s learning of appropriate behaviors. It is most effective to tell children exactly what behaviors you desire.”

For example:

Instead of:Try this:
Don’t yell in the house!Please use your inside talking voice
Why isn’t your homework finished yet?Finish your homework, before asking for screen time.
You better be home on time.I expect you home at 10:00 PM
Knock that off.Please do not throw the football in the house.

One final reminder, as adults – we must remember to model the behaviors we expect from children. If we want rule followers in our home, we too must lead the way, and follow the rules too.

Utilizing Routines & Rituals

Having regular routines can be a helpful strategy for busy parents and kids, like the time we rise from sleep each day or what time we eat. Some parents even rise first so they have some “me” time before the kids wake. The children may have scheduled piano lessons or baseball practice followed by homework completion… all making up what we know as a family routine. Now that summer has arrived, a new routine may include swimming lessons, outdoor adventures, and time for rest and relaxation.

Rituals, on the other hand, may be symbolic. For example, the celebration of a family birthday. This special occasion might also include enjoying a family meal and a “favorite dish” requested by the birthday member!  The birthday ritual itself takes on special meaning and perhaps has been shared over generations. Families may have stories to share about how the rituals celebrated were started and why they continue to be meaningful.

Routines and rituals play a special role in our families and often reflect family values.  When families face “tough times,” the routines can be interrupted. However, parents who maintain routines during the chaos will find they can be a protective factor, which may help the family feel some stability during the “tough time.”

We are connecting rituals and routines to tough times now, but The Science of Parenting team produced two bonus podcasts relating to specific losses in the pandemic (be sure to go back and listen to those, too, if you haven’t heard them already!):

Leaning into Relationships

The family unit is a precious commodity! Every member has a unique and important role to play and every family will have a different set of people they consider meaningful, supportive, and essential! The way we describe our family and the ways in which we celebrate each member can be reflected in our family values! The bonds we create and the relationships we nurture can protect us even during “tough times”.  

The recent pandemic was felt by many families. The health precautions taken included masks, physical distancing, and even postponement of many routines and rituals once enjoyed by extended family and friends.

The isolation that was experienced was an unintended consequence of trying to keep all family members safe and healthy. Family relationships were still important and using video calling or texting or drive by visits were some of the unique ways people stayed connected.

Positive, warm relationships with adults are a protective factor during tough times. In addition to parents, extended family members, coaches, 4-H club or scout leaders, schoolteachers all become important individuals who can support the family during those difficult times!

Research confirms that children and adolescents both find the relationship with the parent unit a source of comfort especially during times of stress and parents are still needed as sources of external monitoring. The following table is one way we can continue to build warm relationships with our children, no matter their age.

To learn more about each of these important concepts, listen or view the podcast!

Risk & Protective Factors

While families are celebrating the start of the summer months and the end of a school year, they are also taking precautions because of the reality of the pandemic that has impacted so many for an entire year. Many lessons have been learned during this very uncertain time. The lessons have revealed the various ways families have experienced resilience over the last 12 months or more.

Family resilience can be defined as the ability of a family to respond positively to an adverse event and emerge strengthened. Numerous influences we refer to as protective factors help us to mitigate the effects of those adverse events. According to research (Hawley 2002), resilience is most likely to be found as risk factors are minimized and protective factors are present.

Sensitive, responsive caregiving is a critical protective factor. Taking time and listening to our kids is necessary. Families who plan for and spend meaningful time playing, talking, and enjoying one another is a great buffer against negative events.

In addition, families who can meet the basic needs of food, clothing, housing, and social support will also find these as protective factors during times of stress or crisis. Asking for help is also a meaningful way to acknowledge that we don’t have to manage all alone. The extended network of relatives, neighbors or friends can provide a needed buffer and support for the family.

The sixth season of The Science of Parenting podcast celebrates family resilience and supports the following actions families can take to reduce the effects of stress and crisis:

Looking for the things we can control in our environment.

Keeping our emotions regulated.

Identifying additional family or neighborhood support.

Asking for help.

Realizing that we are not alone.

Resilience in Tough Times

During this past year, the Covid-19 Pandemic created unforeseen circumstances for many families. Parents and children found themselves at home together, parents working from home, and children participating in virtual school. While all families may have been impacted, the ways in which they were able to cope with those events could be attributed in part to the resilience they had as a family.

Resilience can be defined as the ability of a family to respond positively to an adverse event and emerge strengthened. A teen who recently finished school final exams – could consider that event a “tough time”; A family who has made the decision to move to a new home in a new neighborhood may have children who consider that a pretty “tough time”, if they must leave friends for the move. Managing tough times, no matter how big or little is essential.  

According to Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg, a pediatrician, professor, and author has identified the 7 C’s of resilience that he promotes as the essential building blocks of resilience including:

  1. Competence – helping children and family members to feel capable by learning new skills and abilities.
  2. Confidence – As children learn new skills they build the confidence needed to keep learning and growing.
  3. Connection – We are hard wired for connection with others. Keeping lines of communication open with all family members will support our connection to one another.
  4. Character – Personal integrity and a moral compass are important and reflective of our family values.
  5. Contributing – Children and adults feel worthy when they learn new skills, volunteer, or contribute to an effort larger than themselves.  
  6. Coping – Identifying ways we can manage and cope when we experience the “tough times”. Learning to breathe deeply; taking a walk to cool off; or having a conversation to clear the air are a few coping skills all of us could use.
  7. Sense of Control – As children grow up, the desire to have more independence is strong. Having a sense of control is important and helps us learn to reason and make decisions.

Practicing family resilience in the face of “tough times” takes open communication and connection with one another. Up next is the discussion about the risk and protective factors that impact our resilience! Don’t miss out!

Emerging Adults

Each stage of life encourages all of us to learn skills and adapt to our surroundings. Teens finish high school and make plans for the next big adventure, whether it is college, trade school, or entry into the world of work. These milestones in the life of an emerging young adult are just the beginning of their dreams for a bright future. Parents with emerging adults in the home must navigate a household where more than one or two adults now reside.

The emerging adult is likely to want more freedom and may even explore moving out and getting their own place to live. This independence is part of the natural progression of growth and development. Financial independence from their parents is just one goal forward for many emerging adults.

Strategies for living with emerging young adults include:

  • Renegotiating the roles, instead of “always being the parent”, now as both adults, you must learn to co-exist.
  • Helping your emerging adult take on more responsibility and leaving the door open for the big discussions that may need to happen as they begin making more decisions.
  • Practice ACCEPTANCE, your child is likely to do some things like you do and other times will not.
  • As the parent of a child who has left the nest, be sure to find time to do some things you once enjoyed! Now is the time to celebrate both the grown adult children you raised and the newfound time you have to enjoy your own life journey.