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10 per cent of children fall into a “difficult or challenging” category. These children tend to be highly reactive, unpredictable, emotional, inflexible, and frequently express a negative mood. 

All little ones are challenging at times, but some are challenging most of the time.

According to research on temperament, roughly 10 per cent of children fall into the “difficult or challenging” category. These children, on a consistent basis, tend to be highly reactive, unpredictable, emotional, inflexible, and frequently expressing a negative mood.

As infants they are often fussy and resist eating and sleeping routines. As toddlers, common behaviours like tantrums can be especially intense and prolonged.

Strengths of a challenging temperament

Because parenting or caring for a child with a challenging temperament can feel overwhelming, it may be hard to zero in on his or her strengths, but it’s one of the most important things a parent or educator can do.

With sensitive parenting and caregiving, children with challenging temperaments can learn to use their natural feistiness in positive ways. In fact, research shows that children with challenging temperaments are especially sensitive to parenting style. When they receive an authoritative parenting style, they tend to do better cognitively, academically, and socially than children with easy temperaments.

How to support a child with a challenging temperament

In this article we discuss how important it is to accept the child for who they are. You can’t change their temperament, but you can help them manage temperament-related challenges and behaviour.

Here are few key ways to support a child with a challenging temperament:

Use positive, authoritative parenting

Research on parenting styles shows that a positive, authoritative approach helps children thrive in every area of life. Because little ones with challenging temperaments are more sensitive, it’s especially important to avoid parenting styles that over-focus on rules while neglecting emotional connection.

Balancing limit-setting with sensitivity is important for every child, but especially for those with challenging temperaments. Using strict, cold tactics is likely to backfire. Rather than trying to control the child’s behaviour, guide it. When it feels hardest to connect with the child, that’s typically when they need it the most.

Choose your battles

Little ones with a challenging temperament can make you feel like you are constantly disciplining or in an ongoing battle of wills. Try to prioritise the behaviours you most want to modify (like aggression, for example) and ease off others for the time being. Once there is a change in the top concerns, focus on behaviours lower on the list.

Take a deep breath (or several)

The saying “don’t add fuel to the fire” is fitting when it comes to interacting with challenging temperaments. Remaining calm, neutral, and patient is hard, but it can diffuse the child’s emotions.

Last but not least, if you’re caring for a fussy infant, remember to avoid negative labels. Because a challenging temperament is, well, challenging, it lends itself to negative labels. Try to catch yourself (or others) using negative labels to describe the child, and substitute more positive ones. Rather describe the challenging child as spirited. Other positive labels include energetic, assertive, and persistent.

The idea is to keep a strengths-based perspective, which helps you, the child, and anyone else who cares for him or her remember that they are more than their challenges. Negative labels will harm your relationship with the little one, interfere with teaching him positive behaviour skills and, over time, squash their self-esteem.

A spirited child may be “more” than others, but with sensitive support during these early years they can learn how to manage their temperament and maximise their strengths.