I have often felt that I just don’t understand the children that I am parenting. Their impulses often don’t make sense to me, and I can’t figure out why they make such bone-headed decisions. Most of the frustration comes from the fact that we have different personalities, and it takes work to understand each other. Unfortunately, parents have more responsibility in this dynamic, given that we are the adults and it’s our job to help our children learn. After a lot of trial and error, I have learned a few tips that made the process much easier.
• We Can’t Change Each Other
It took me a long time to admit that I can’t change all of my kids’ bad habits. Most of their responses are rooted in personality differences that are hardwired. We can help them learn to channel their responses, but first we have to recognize their personality types.
The Myers-Briggs test is the most well-known tool, but there are many others. It’s well worth your time to go through one or two of them to learn more about yourself and your family. The process will help you understand your kids’ motivations for many of their behavior.
For example, most of my family consists of introverts who recharge our batteries by spending time alone. One of my older stepsons jokes about coming over to our house one evening and finding all the common areas dark and deserted. My husband and I and our two younger sons were each in our individual bedrooms (our son called them our “caves”), happily engaged in solitary activities. Because we all tend to be introverts, we were all perfectly happy to spend our evenings separately. An extrovert child, on the other hand, would have been very unhappy and, if we didn’t make ourselves available, likely would have turned to social media (healthy or unhealthy) for company.
Part of being a family is learning how to adapt to traits that we can’t change. When I parented extroverted foster kids, I had to make a concerted effort to get out of the house and get them involved in extracurricular activities. I didn’t particularly enjoy having to meet all the new people involved in those groups, but my kids needed the experiences. Similarly, I had to explain to those kids that I couldn’t be on call for everything that they wanted to do, so we had to agree on priorities. Both of us benefited from learning to adapt to each other’s personalities.
• We Can Channel Our Impulses and Improve Our Responses
That fact that some personality traits are hard-wired doesn’t mean that we have to give up on making changes. Introverts need to learn how to get out of their comfort zone and meet new people, for example, while extroverts need to learn how to entertain themselves. The rough and tumble of daily life doesn’t allow us the ease of remaining where we start.
We need to help our children learn how to channel their strengths. Introverts, for example, can become good leaders precisely because they don’t need to be in the spotlight. They can be content to let others take the credit while they work on solutions to the next problem. Extroverts, on the other hand, have no equal in rallying people and generating enthusiasm for a common goal. Successful teams (and families) learn to find a place for both traits.
Channeling impulses is one of the toughest life lessons to learn, particularly for traumatized kids. They develop coping skills born of their personality types and experiences, and it is hard for them to learn new skills for new situations. Helping them channel their personality traits into new successful skills takes a lot of patience and, in some cases, a lot of therapy. During that process, we parents have to remember that we are not trying to change our kids to meet our standards, but helping them channel their hard-wired personality traits to meet new challenges in their new lives.
• Every Flaw Is the Flip Side of a Virtue
Finally, we have to remember that personality traits are not inherently bad or good, but simply have strengths and weaknesses. More important, every weakness is simply the flip side of a strength, depending on your perspective. A person who tends to approach all problems with logic may not connect with people well enough to be elected to any office, for example, but he or she might be an outstanding engineer. Engineers always build better bridges than politicians.
The same principles hold true in our families. A friend of a friend had a four-year-old child whose uncle regularly took him to a low-cost chain store to buy toys. The child saw one of the stores across the street from his child care center. One day when the staff failed to adequately lock the playground gate, the child snuck out and went across the street to the store to find toys. Of course, it was a dangerous situation, and it was fortunate that the child wasn’t harmed. On the other hand, the child showed initiative and problem-solving skills that, if he learns to channel them safely, could one day make him a successful CEO.
Our challenge is to look at our children’s choices from different perspectives, starting with theirs. Yes, their decisions sometimes are dangerous and counterproductive. But lecturing them won’t change their personalities and may simply squash whatever strengths they have. We have to find ways to understand them, recognize and celebrate their strengths, and help them channel those strengths into more successful decisions and life skills.
What ways have you found to help children channel their personality strengths? Email me and I’ll include them in another blog post.