Tag Archives: Temperament

The case of wrongdoings

The couple therapist had a brilliant suggestion: Go home and try to do something wrong on purpose! We giggled and thought that this guy, with typical therapist-looks, was nice, although mildly insane. But we went home and tried. And tried. And did not succeed. Couldn’t, wouldn’t, do anything wrong on purpose.

Finally, I left some clothes on the hall floor after coming home with kids. Purposely not picking up the mittens, hats, and shoes scattered around. It was so hard to do that I finally understood the goal of the exercise: even if things go wrong in a family, it’s barely the person’s intention.

A new insight came the other day when both the girls’ teachers pointed out the importance of daring to be wrong when asked questions in class or not being certain about the validity a viewpoint. She said wrong or ambivalent answers could lead to more interesting discussions. My kids looked puzzled: they didn’t quite see the point of purposefully getting things wrong.

So apparently, what our family needs more of is being able to safely mess up. Get things wrong. Make mistakes. And not be persecuted on the altar of perfectionism – the grand enemy of creativity and happiness.

Being able to handle wrongdoings is an important part of any close relationship. Our internal working models of human relationships determine the way we deal with conflicts. Consider these four ways of viewing close relationships, based on attachment theory, and think about how it will affect the way the person reacts to a conflict.

  • It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me. (Secure)
  • I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me. (Dismissive)
  • I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them. (Preoccupied)
  • I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others. (Fearful)

Clearly, those with a secure attachment pattern will have a better inner ability to tolerate the ups and downs of relationships. The preoccupied or fearful attachment styles render the person vulnerable to feeling worthless, not accepted, and that conflicts might mean the end of a relationship. Someone with a dismissive style might be less tolerant to people’s shortcomings and be apt to back off rather than attempt to solve a conflict.

Adding perfectionism to the equation is like asking people to balance on a rope high up in the air while they are trying to deal with an actual or perceived wrongdoing of the other. It will become immensely difficult and shift the focus to not falling down instead of finding a mutually satisfying solution.

I think what the couple therapist was trying to get us to realise is that it is more than enough to have different personalities, cultural or social backgrounds, attachment styles, and temperamental traits involved in any conflict situation. We don’t need the illusion of perfection as a possibility messing up our chances in dealing with it.


Fanni, our eldest, dropped a bag of Danish pastry on the floor yesterday with greasy crumbs scattering all over the floor. My gut reaction was of course to moan and accuse, but I quickly reminded myself to ease off and said it was no problem. The poor kid said about four times that it hadn’t been her intention to drop the bag until she heard what I was saying.

“Those things happen so easily, no problem. Look at the dog praising his luck. Just shove the rest up and it’s gone.” She just looked at me and said nothing, but I know we both felt much better already. If you think this is really basic stuff – good on you! You can advance to the next level of imperfection training.

14 years of being who she is

So on this rainy-sunny September day my eldest daughter turned 14. Actually, the fact that it hails like mad outside right now suits her temper quite well. Sometimes it hails both inside and around her. It is much like I used to be, with a ball of fire lighting up in my stomach, shooting out of me, burning people and things in its way. I still throw the occasional bowl, but honestly, I check so it is a plastic one and throw it somewhere where it won’t damage anything. So there is really almost no point left in throwing things around because of all the planning and then the cleaning it takes.

But the temperamental trait, that ball of fire igniting, my reluctance for changes and new situations with lots of new people, and my need for some quiet, own time has stayed the same ever since I was an infant. I was an easy baby though, because my mother understood my needs and the current ideology of a very regular schedule for infants suited my rythmicity perfectly. Five years later, my brother had a hard time teaching my mother that not all babies are the same, but I think she got it after a while.

So when my daughter screams and shouts and gets overwhelmed when we ask more than two things of her at the same time, I have no problems understanding her. My poor husband just looks at me and says: “What wrong did I say now?!” Well, truth is, it’s not just the what; it’s the how, and the timing, and the weather, and the mood for the day that all adds up to ignite that fire or start the hail. But there are not only cons of having an excitable temperament, it also helps you take in the world through all your pores and helps you live more fully. So Fanny can create and play music and photograph beautifully or be absorbed in a book with cutting out the world completely. With experience and a respect for your own needs it is possible to make the best of any kind of temperamental trait. As a parent, your role is to try and accommodate your child’s temperamental needs and teach them how to tame some of the trickier implications of being who they are.

And you might as well start today because temperamental traits are extremely stable over time. The Australian Temperament Project (ATP) followed infants for 30 years. They found three aspects of temperament to be most important and also most stable: “sociability – the tendency of a child to be shy or outgoing in new situations and when meeting new people; reactivity – how strongly a child reacts to experiences and to frustration; and persistence – the extent to which a child can stay on task and control their attention, despite distractions and difficulties” (cited directly from the ATP website). These temperamental aspects also affect the person’s capacity to self-regulate, implying control over their feelings and behaviour, and ability for focused attention that is so important for learning.

The good news is that strong social skills, stable and warm parent and peer relationships, and good school experiences all influence how well children fare. So our job as parents is to help our daughter make the best of her reactivity – focusing on the important things and discarding irrelevant stimuli, to expose her to fun people where she can take advantage of her sociability, and encourage her persistence even on tasks that are not all that fun.

As for the fire and hail – those things will wear off some with time and the people who want to remain close to her will simply learn to duck. Until then, she has discovered that the pillows in the sofa serve her very well when she needs to let off some steam. I might actually try that next time my fire ball comes on, because we don’t have any plastic bowls here.