At a mother’s request, I observed a two-and-a-half-year-old girl in her preschool group. The mother wanted to make sure that her daughter’s functioning was on a par for her age. Thinking about nursery school ahead, she wondered if the child was ready for separation and had reached the appropriate level of skills for her age.

In exploring the mother’s own picture of her child, her questions seemed related to behavior rather than to skills. Although she was inquiring about her daughter’s level of competence what emerged was a description of personality and temperament.

When mothers ask me about a child’s behavior that concerns them, the question that often comes up is whether the behavior is “normal.” What they are really asking is whether the behavior is “abnormal,” meaning, “Does this mean there is something wrong with my child?” The question may arise when a child’s behavior doesn’t fit a mother’s picture of what is appropriate, or creates a problem for a parent.

What does “normal” really mean? Sometimes parents mean, “Is this typical of all children?” Another meaning can be, “Is it natural for a child to do this?” The implication is that if it is “typical” or “natural,” the behavior is OK. If not, then something is wrong with the behavior and possibly with the child who is behaving this way.

In fact, normal does not mean good or bad. It means in the nature of things. It may be in the nature of a young child to want his own way, to get angry about things expected of him, even to have a tantrum when frustrated. But that doesn’t mean the behavior is acceptable, and is something the child may need help mastering. At the same time, behavior simply may reflect a child’s personality that is different in ways from other children or from a parent’s expectation.

Children are born with certain distinctive temperaments or behavior styles which emerge in various ways early in life. These innate characteristics develop over time into distinctive individual personalities. Children are partners in this development. Their native endowments elicit from parents and others certain responses. The interaction between parent and child is possibly more significant than either of their personalities individually; yet their individual personalities have a big impact on the way they interact with each other.

At times there can be a mismatch of personality or behavioral styles between a parent and child. Parents talk about children pushing their buttons. This may refer to children carrying things too far, provoking their parents. But it may instead reflect an aspect of a child’s behavior that is particularly intolerable to his parent yet not affect someone else the same way.

Or an outgoing parent may have a slow to warm up child who becomes clingy in social situations. For such a parent it might be particularly difficult to accept a child’s different personal style. An attempt to modify the behavior may actually reinforce the behavior that upsets them as children become aware of failing to meet a parent’s expectation.

In the instance of the mother described above, she identified elements of the child’s behavior with aspects of her own personality of which she was critical. Yet the differences between them were significant and were not affecting the child’s interactions in the ways that concerned the mother.

It is useful to understand how differences in style or temperament between our child and ourselves may cause conflict. If we can accept the differences between us we can play an important role in helping a child be successful within her own style of behavior.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.