The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneAugust 2006: Comfort Zone ONLINE
A Book Review:
The Temperament Perspective by Jan Kristal

A Book Review for Sensitive Parents (and All of Us): The Temperament Perspective by Jan Kristal (Brookes, 2005)

This review is for parents of sensitive children, but also for all readers, in that it reminds us of what we did or did not receive as children, when less was known about temperament, and what we can do for ourselves now.

The Temperament Perspective is a book for parents but also professionals, such as teachers and counselors. Thus it is written at a higher level than some parenting books, with ideas and suggestions backed up by research described within the book as well as cited at the end. Some parents will appreciate this scientific approach more than others, but it does increase one's trust of Jan's authority. I also know personally. She is highly sensitive herself and has raised two very different sensitive daughters. Working for many years on her own and for Kaiser Permanente, a large California HMO, she has met with over 600 parents to counsel them about their child's temperament issues. She has been on radio and TV and now teaches temperament counseling in a variety of venues, from universities to parenting centers. She is also an engaging author--her case illustrations are fun to read.

Jan is interested in the whole range of temperaments and their combinations. So besides sensitivity she discusses intensity (emotional expressiveness), activity (need to move about), distractibility (having one's attention easily pulled out of an activity and drawn to something else going on), persistence (degree of focus or concentration, but different from distractibility, in that you could be distracted but then return to being focused), flexibility (easily adapting to others), and rhythmicity (sleep, hunger, and other bodily functions are on an inner schedule versus being irregular). Plus there's approach/withdrawal (approach is what I call sensation seeking), and one's general mood (optimistic or more negative, which I am not sure is innate, but is still a factor in personality).

Goodness of Fit

One of the most important concepts in temperament theory and research has been the idea of goodness of fit, and Jan devotes a chapter to it as well as referring to it often throughout the book. It is defined as "the compatibility between the characteristics of the individual and the demands and expectations of the environment" (p. 17). In practical terms it means working with rather than against temperament. For example, a teacher notices a child is becoming fidgety and sends her to return some books to the library rather than lecturing to her about sitting still. When she returns, she is able to sit still and concentrate again.

When there is not goodness of fit, children (or adults) often become anxious, defiant, or out of control. They do not know why they are feeling these ways and neither do those around them. Often they become labeled as problems or having some disorder when all of this could have been avoided with a little effort to create a better fit. Sometimes teachers (and employers) think they do not have time to think about individual styles, but usually it saves time in the long run.

When adults around a child recognize the child's temperament, they feel recognized for who them are, not merely what they can do. They can also begin to learn to create their own goodness of fit. For example, a sensitive child can learn to leave a noisy or scary movie before it becomes overwhelming. They feel better about themselves because they are not being a problem.

Goodness of fit also requires thinking about how children will get along with other children. For example an intense child low in sensitivity will often hurt the feelings of a highly sensitive child. And temperament ought to affect the choice of activities for children--not all children are suited to soccer just because it is the sport of choice for most children these days. Some might enjoy something that can be at least practiced alone, like track or swimming, or played in a smaller group, like tennis or golf.

Perhaps most important, goodness of fit can be considered when choosing school settings--the size of a preschool, the teacher requested by a parent, or the program a child is enrolled in (gifted, remedial, etc.). And in the medical realm, temperament can determine how to treat a child with certain symptoms. Sensitive children may be over tested and treated because they complain more, and medical providers do not want to be in legal trouble because they did not follow up on all of this. Others may not want to complain and cause others troubles. Yet they do feel pain more than other children, so sometimes a doctor will skip a procedure because the child became too upset, when a kinder, slower approach might have made it possible to proceed.

All of the above can be applied to adults too. They need to focus on creating a good fit between themselves and their environment and between themselves and the expectations of themselves and others. They need to take all of their strong or unusual temperament traits into consideration when choosing friends, activities, school, or job. They need to be careful not to over or under treat themselves or allow their sensitivity to pain to cause them to avoid important tests or procedures, but rather to find people who will handle them gently.

Goodness of fit for children does not mean that the adult and child have to have the same temperaments, but it does require that the parents be able to notice subtle cues shown by the child's behavior. This makes being a highly sensitive parent a huge plus. But otherwise, a temperament counselor can "sensitize" adults to the child's traits and suggest how to recognize cues that trouble is brewing, such as over stimulation at a county fair, and move the child immediately into a quiet area for awhile.

Being a sensitive parent also has difficulties of course, including perhaps having to raise a non-sensitive, intense, active, irregular, distractible, slow-to-adapt child. That would be hard! But even raising a sensitive child can be difficult if parent and child differ on certain other critical traits. For example, two flexible, rhythmical HS parents who are not intense or active would have a difficult time with an inflexible, irregular, intense, active HSC. These parents would have to do things for their child that would never occur to them to do for themselves, such as giving the child plenty of warning about any changes coming and seeing that the child has enough physical exercise. They would have to tolerate tantrums unless routines are followed and conflicts anticipated and headed off. However, the point is that with enough insight, goodness of fit can always be established.

How does goodness of fit relate to attachment style, another topic I have often discussed? Goodness of fit promotes secure attachment. A parent who is responsive to a child's temperament is creating security. It is thought that a child's temperament can also affect attachment, in that children with very difficult temperaments cause certain parents to distance themselves--parents who could provide a secure attachment to an easier child. Social support for a parent with a child who has a difficult temperament can increase secure attachment.

Of course when attachment is poor and parents are also not providing goodness of fit or teaching the child how to manage his or her traits, which is usually the case, both problems will have an even greater negative effect on the child. Sensitive children become withdrawn and fearful. Active children will be out of control. Flexible children will become "people pleasers." Distractible ones could develop symptoms of ADHD. And expressive children could become emotionally unstable.

Goodness of Fit and the Adult HSP

HSPs are finally aware I hope that we ought to seek a good fit for ourselves at home and at work, in both the physical and social environment. In doing this, they should think about their other temperament traits too. Then they have to become skilled parents to themselves, being prepared for a sudden need for food, quiet, activity, or a firm schedule. They have to create a good fit with the environment, such as the right lighting, some plants, a good bed, heavy curtains for sleeping late, fresh air, access to nature, or whatever else suits your temperament. If you don't have full control over an environment you have to be in, you need to negotiate for as much as you can get--a window, a window that opens, good lighting, the right office furniture, quiet, and all the rest. It may take time to obtain all that you need, but if the environment is really bad and there is no foreseeable progress, you may have to move yourself to another environment. A good parent would do that for a sensitive child.

We also need those around us to supply some of that goodness of fit. We cannot do it all alone because we are with others so much of the time. This does not mean everyone should cater to us, by any means, but we can make them a little more aware of a few specific things that are easy for them to take into account--speaking more kindly or accepting a "no" from us without a big fuss.

One way to do this is to discuss with friends, family, and co-workers all nine of Jan's list of temperament traits and see who has what. Then you might as a pair or group strive for goodness of fit with each other. A highly active person should not be expected to sit through a two and half hour dinner. The rhythmic sorts should not be expected to work through their lunch or dinner hour. An intense person should not be treated as a neurotic for a strong outburst now and then. It just makes sense to adapt to each other's temperament when possible. And this way, your needs are considered too, in the context of others.

More Tips for Creating a Better Fit for Kids or Adults

When Jan Kristal works with parents and teachers, she first has to look at their parenting or teaching style (as you would look at your style of parenting yourself, perhaps learned from your parents and teachers). Style will be influenced by their past and by their culture. And style may need to change. For example, in our culture autonomy and independence are often emphasized, even though these are not necessarily good for the social animals that humans are. For a human to feel secure, he or she needs to feel closely attached to others throughout life, not just when very small. Expecting too much autonomy in children can in itself create insecurity, even if that is fairly normal in our culture.

Another example is discipline. Some adults will be strict with children, some lenient. The best style, according to research, is "authoritative" but not "authoritarian." That is, setting limits but allowing choices within that; being both high in control and high in warmth; encouraging give and take; and using discipline that is firm, fair, not physical, and not shaming or harsh.

Once the adults have the right general attitude, they have to be taught to think about the child's specific temperament, decide what is not working, and make a plan that is simple and clear so that they can be consistent in following it. They should specify exactly what changes they want to make in their behavior or the child's environment in order to achieve their goal. This depends, again, on temperament. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. For example, if a child has trouble sleeping, having the trait of sensitivity may mean he or she needs more quiet and just the right temperature and bedding. But the trait of inflexibility or slow-adapting may require something different--a schedule and bedtime routine to sleep better. Distractibility may require all of this plus no toys left out and no one else coming into the room during the bedtime routine. Intense children may need to cry awhile by themselves in order to learn to soothe themselves. (Temperament can also change what need to be done when an adult has trouble sleeping.)

Jan recommends establishing priorities and working on one issue at a time. It is essential to accept that change may be slow and require great persistence. It helps to write down any improvements in order to keep up morale. Support groups and parenting classes can help too. And of course many problems children or adults have are not at all about temperament, or not entirely anyway. These require other professional help.

For many more helpful details about working with each temperament trait at every age and in every setting as well as knowing when to seek other help, parents may well want to read The Temperament Perspective cover to cover.

August 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Looking Back: How the Concept of HSP (Quietly) Entered the Public Consciousness
Coping Corner: Thoughts on Vacations and Travel
Book Review : The Temperament Perspective by Jan Kristal

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