🧬 How do genetics impact our child’s temperament, personality, and development?
Here to talk about the impact of DNA, environmental factors, and the interplay between a child’s actions and a parent’s response is Dr. Danielle Dick. Dr. Dick is the author of The Child Code and an internationally recognized and award-winning expert on genetic and environmental influences on human behavior.
This episode offers a roadmap for parents, empowering them to embrace their child’s innate strengths, manage pitfalls, and foster a nurturing environment tailored to their unique temperament.
Tune in for a refreshing perspective that takes the pressure off parenting, encouraging radical acceptance, and intentional guidance in this marathon called parenthood.
Dr. Danielle (00:00):
Helping our kids see the way that they naturally are as strengths, and then helping think about, okay, but what are some of the possible pitfalls that come along with this so we can curb those? Essentially, those are some of the really, gifts we can give our kids as parents.
Dr. Sarah (00:25):
You are likely familiar with the age old debate of nature versus nurture. How much of our child’s personality, temperament, and individual traits are predetermined and how many are influenced by us and the environment. So today we’re going to explore this fascinating topic and we’re going to discuss how we can align our parenting approach with our child’s genetic predispositions. Joining me today is author of the book, the Child Code and Professor of Psychiatry at Rutgers, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Dr. Danielle Dick. Dr. Dick is an internationally recognized and award-winning expert on genetic and environmental influences on human behavior. In this episode, we will unravel the insights pulled from Dr. Dick’s extensive research and developmental behavior genetics, and we’re going to discover how this knowledge can empower us to move beyond the traditional notion of molding our child and instead adapt our parenting strategies to harmonize with their unique wiring that could transform the way we approach parenting.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hi everyone. Today we have Dr. Danielle Dick here. Thank you so much for being here.
Dr. Danielle (02:11):
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, Sarah. So it’s such a pleasure to be here. In my day job, I essentially run a large addiction research center, but my passion is really in thinking about how we can apply research to parents. So I’m happy to be here with you.
Dr. Sarah (02:29):
That’s so perfect and yeah, I was so excited to have you come on because I really love when people can translate science into regular language that parents can understand and then go and use, and I feel like that is very much what you do and I so appreciate it.
Dr. Danielle (02:50):
Well, it’s definitely become my passion. So a little bit about me. I’m a scientist. I’ve spent the past 25 years doing research on kids and families and really I study why some people are more at risk for developing problems with mental health challenges and substance use than others, and we know that part of it’s in our genes and part of it’s in our environments. And I really do a lot of research projects to figure out those pieces. So I run big gene identification projects to actually understand the biology and find genes involved and why some of us are more at risk than others. But I do a lot of studies of kids growing up. So what do kids who are at risk genetically and really all of us carry some kind of risk? All of these things are on a bell curve. It’s not an either or, but what does risk look like growing up and what kinds of environments either exacerbate or reduce risk?
And then we ultimately try and use all this to develop preventative and interventions that parents can use. And I sometimes jokingly say that it was when I had my own son, I found myself raising the high risk child that I study, and all of a sudden it made my research all the more meaningful to me and it also caused me to look around at the messages that parents were getting from the world, and I realized how much they didn’t match so much of the research that I was engaged in. And that’s really what led me to both to write my book the Child Code, but also to try and do much more outreach in terms of talking with other parents.
Dr. Sarah (04:32):
Yes, and I feel very similar. That’s a big reason why I started this podcast is I was like, what I am learning and what I see in my sessions behind the scenes reading research and what I’m seeing as a parent, the content I’m receiving as a parent, it’s so discrepant. And I was like, we’ve got to bridge this gap. And so what are some of the things that you are seeing that were super not aligned with each other?
Dr. Danielle (05:02):
So there is so much information out there for parents now we’re inundated with parenting books and parenting podcasts and parenting magazines. And the thing that really struck me is that there’s so much information for parents about what they should be doing with their kids. And I think that inadvertently what that can do is put a ton of pressure on us as parents because if our kids are struggling in any way, we immediately I think convert that to what am I doing wrong? What should I be doing better? I need to go find more information, I need to figure out what I should be doing. And of course, it’s really important. There’s a lot of great material out there. There’s a lot of great information in understanding good parenting practices and things that we can do. But the piece that is really getting ignored, I think in a lot of that conversation is the fact that our kids are all wired differently.
So I am a geneticist and neuroscientist. I study biology first. And so our kids are not blank slates that we get to write upon or we don’t just get to mold them into exactly the little people that we want them to be, which I think sometimes those messages about here’s all the things you should do to have happy, resilient, well adjusted children sometimes can cause us to think. So really what I focus on a lot is also understanding how all of our kids are wired differently. One size fits all, parenting doesn’t work, and what works for one child might not work for another child very often. It’s not that you as a parent is doing something wrong, it’s that you just have a different child than your best friend’s child with whom their favorite parenting technique works like a charm.
Dr. Sarah (07:03):
Or this child from your other child.
Dr. Danielle (07:05):
Totally. In my field, the running joke is that everyone is an environmentalist until they have their second child and then they realize, wait, I’m doing all the same things and this one is turning out totally differently, or why did it work here and it’s not working here? And I think that is where you have that powerful experience of, oh, they all come with their own little personalities and their own little dispositions. And I think a lot of parenting stress comes when we are essentially pushing up against that. I sometimes say it’s easier to work with mother nature than against mother nature. And so that’s why I’m a big believer and my book is really all about how by understanding your child’s disposition, we can make it easy on ourselves as parents because we can think about what is likely to be most important or to work best for each of our unique little kiddos.
Dr. Sarah (08:09):
Yes, I think that is so valuable. I can’t even, and I really agree. I think everyone, it’s like your first, when you have second kid, you become a scientist, all of a sudden it’s like, oh, now I can compare to data points next to each other versus when we have one child, it’s like we end up kind of assuming causation, but I did this, so this is the outcome. But it’s not until you have two data points that you get to finally see, oh, I did this in one situation and this is what happened, and I did the same thing in this situation and a different thing happened. Now how do I explain that? It’s like you become a little scientist.
Dr. Danielle (08:54):
It is so easy to do as well in terms of fall into that parenting trap of thinking that everything we’re doing is directly correlating with our kids’ behavior. And I say that in the sense that even studying genetics, knowing what I do, when I had my son, he was such an easy infant. He slept like a charm. He ate really easily. And of course, in my very naive first child way, I thought, well, obviously I have a PhD in psychology. I’ve read all of my books. Well, what’s so hard about babies? And before you hate me know that around the time his temperament started showing up, it changed radically. But it’s that parenting myth where I thought, oh, I am a great parent and I have this great child. Of course, what really was going on is that I just had a really easy infant by chance who happened to be a good sleeper and a good eater, and I was lucky in that sense.
But then when our kids struggle very often we start attributing that to ourselves too. So I think it can be harmful in both ways in the sense that when you believe like, oh, I am the one who’s contributing to the fact that my child is so delightful and perfect, it’s easy to look at other parents and think, well, what is that parent doing wrong? We look at the child who’s throwing a fit in target or the teenager who’s talking back or whatnot, and we think like, oh, that parent clearly needs to fill in our favorite parenting advice there. And so I think it can inadvertently lead us to be judgy with one another. We need support from each other when our kids are struggling more than anything else. And so I think that it can both unfortunately lead to parents being judging with one another, but then us also being so judgmental with ourselves if it’s our child who is struggling, what am I doing wrong? What do I need to be doing? And feeling that others are judging us too. So that’s one of the reasons that I really try and talk about and remind parents. Remember, our kids all come with their own little dispositions and personalities because we’re not working from blank lumps of little clay that are just up to our fabulous parenting to shape.
Dr. Sarah (11:40):
Which hopefully takes some of the pressure off because I can’t tell you how many parents I work with that come to me feeling very defeated and very guilty and ashamed and embarrassed, and they feel as though they’ve failed because their kid is having a hard time. I mean, obviously I’m a psychologist and people tend to come to me when they’ve hit a threshold of things are really not working, they’re really starting to fall apart a bit, or they’re feeling really bad. So I’ve got a self-selecting population, but a lot of my work is helping parents kind of do this. Reframing is like, how do we think about not blaming ourselves for this and also not think about it’s our responsibility to necessarily fix it either like a kid is going to, some kids are going to struggle more than others, some kids because they’re wired in a way that doesn’t match with the environmental expectations that our world has created for them, but also because sometimes they have to move through processes and it’s messy. I’m really curious, when you’re talking about your research or when you’re working on your book, what were the things that you were like, okay, these are some of the really challenging things that I see kids sort of have that parents then really do tend to blame themselves for versus is looking at their genetics, looking at their wiring?
Dr. Danielle (13:12):
Yeah, so the interesting thing about studying genetics is that almost all behavior is genetically influenced. Almost everything is genetically influenced. I mean, we are in fact products of our biology. It starts with an egg and a sperm and DNA and cells dividing. And so that’s where everything starts and then the environment starts getting layered onto that. And so honestly, whether we’re talking about anxiety and fear, which of course shows up even earlier as fearfulness and kids. So whether we’re talking about that, whether we’re talking about impulsivity, which of course then as kids get older can turn into conduct problems or defiance or ADHD, whether we’re talking about extroversion, how extroverted or introverted kids are, which can lead to challenges as you said with when there’s mismatches in the environment. I definitely ran into that with my son. I found that a lot of temper tantrums were when we were going out in public in places, and eventually I realized, oh, I’m far more extroverted than he is.
He was young. His little toddler brain didn’t have the ability to say It’s extremely anxiety provoking when I’m put in front of huge groups of people, and I don’t know any of them because he’s naturally more of a one-on-one kind of introverted person. And instead it just resulted in these massive temper tantrums and things. And so I really think that it’s across all areas of behavior, regardless of which one you might be struggling with your child. So we know that almost about percent of the variation in almost any behavior you study is due to differences in kids’ DNA. So meaning that about half of the differences between why some kids are more impulsive, more anxious, more sociable, more outgoing, whatever it might be, is due to differences in just the way that the genes they inherited, which impacted the way their brains were wired, which impacts the way they interact with the world.
And that also impacts, of course, our relationship with them as parents. And I think one of the most fascinating things out of child psychology is the longitudinal studies that show kids’ behavior shapes future parent behavior more than parent behavior, shapes future kid behavior, which really shows that we react to our kids for better and worse and their behavior as much as the rules and the things that the scaffold around our children are shaping them. And I don’t at all mean to suggest that they aren’t both important. Of course they clearly are. But the point is, it’s this dynamic interaction between the things we do, the way they impact each of our differently wired kiddos, and then the way we respond to those children’s interactions that start to create the dynamics that can make it harder for what some kids and make them struggle more. But to turn this to a place where I think parents can really get behind it and use it by understanding what that looks like, we can also use it to our advantage. We can use how our kids are wired to think about where are the places where it’s causing friction, and then how do we get in front of that, whether it’s working with a clinical psychologist, someone like you or in your practice or whether it’s the practices that we put in place at home or both.
Dr. Sarah (17:05):
Yeah, that is an amazing finding. I think that what you just said, I want to repeat it so profound. So the study is showing that the children’s behavior is more predictive of parent behavior than the other way around.
Dr. Danielle (17:23):
Yes, exactly. And the interesting thing is there was a huge study that looked at this all around the world. So they were following people from, I think it was like, I can’t remember the details, but it was like eight to 15 countries and cultures, and they found this pattern everywhere in the world too. And I think it just shows how parenting is in many ways though, we have all these cultural differences, a universal experience in terms of interacting with all of our different kids.
Dr. Sarah (17:57):
But I think in a way I can hear it depends on how you read that you could be both terrified by that. Like, oh God, all these things that I’ve been trying to do don’t matter. All these behavior charts and plans and things. It’s like my kid is who they are and then I’m going to react and that’s going to have what actually matters. But then I also think on the flip side, that’s super empowering because if we can notice how we respond to our kids’ behaviors and pay attention to the way that can activate a certain response to them or a behavior in them, we can change us so much more easily than we can change them. That’s why the behavior charts are challenging because you can change a kid’s behavior for a week, but are you going to really change it for that long? It’s not really that easy to change a child’s behavior or what I think your whole body of work is saying. The behavior is just the expression of something internal that’s already there.
Dr. Danielle (18:57):
And I don’t want parents to come away feeling disempowered. I actually think this can be, as you say, very empowering because we sometimes talk about the reaction range. And by that I mean, so if you imagine a child who’s naturally far more introverted, then you are probably not going to be able to parent that child to want to be dancing on tables and be the center of attention in a large crowd. But what you can do is parent that child to the point where they can make it in a work setting where they have to interact with others at school or eventually one day as we think about launching them into the world on their own at work or otherwise. And so the reaction range is you can work with a child’s temperament and you’re probably not going to take, again, a very introverted child and make them want to suddenly be the center of a attention, but you can teach them skills such that they don’t just want to spend all their time in the room by themselves.
So some of it is managing expectations, but also thinking about how do you help your children see their dispositions as strengths and not as liabilities? And so I’ll talk about this extroversion, introversion one because I think it’s sort of an easy thing for parents to wrap their head around because we also kind of know where we tend to fall on that dimension pretty easily as well. And so something like I mentioned earlier, I’m very extroverted and when I wasn’t being intentional about it and thinking about the fact that my son is far more introverted, he’s now a teenager and he is still the person that prefers to spend time with a couple close friends. But when I was putting him in, what was my idea of really fun Saturday mornings together to go to playgroups and to meet up with folks at the parks or the local museums, it was very anxiety provoking for him.
And so it was essentially, and as I mentioned, it was creating all this tension at home, meaning we’re having a nice little breakfast and I say, oh, we’re going to go to the park and meet up with so-and-so and so. Next thing I know, he’s sweeping the cereal bowl off the table and saying, I’m not going to go. Or we’ve all had these moments with our child and then you dig in and say, that’s not appropriate behavior and we already have plans to do this and all the things that lead nowhere good. And so when I got in front of it, I realized I was essentially doing the equivalent of throwing a child who couldn’t swim in the deep end of the pool. Whereas once I realized this, I went, okay, so he feels really anxious when he’s put into big groups of people he doesn’t know.
Well, instead we started doing playgroups with another child and parent and then he’s much better. He gets to know that child, okay, now we introduce another child. Now he gets to know that individual. And then eventually we work up to the point where it isn’t a huge catastrophe where now we’re going to a birthday party with a lot of children, but it’s a learned skill for some children because they’re not naturally wired that way for others. If you have a child who’s more extroverted, you would never even be thinking about having to have this, it would feel easy. You grab your kiddo, you run to the park, everybody’s excited. But sometimes when we have that family friction, when we can step back and look at it, it’s due to a mismatch between the environment we’re creating for that child and their natural disposition. I sometimes say if you had a child who was doing poorly in math, you wouldn’t think that punishing them or just forcing them to do more multiplication was going to suddenly make them a great math student. If they don’t understand the concepts, you have to teach them that before they can then apply them. And with behavior, very often we just think either we’re going to punish bad behavior or we expect children’s behavior to be at a certain point. But for kids, some of them are just wired in ways that they need a little more teaching and help to get to that point.
Dr. Sarah (23:31):
Yes, I think that is such a valuable way of framing it because I think most of the time when I’m working with families and we’re dealing with objectively challenging behaviors, objectively they’re not functioning. Those behaviors don’t function well. Right. But I hear all the time, those aren’t acceptable behaviors. They can’t do that. It’s just they need to learn that that’s not allowed. And I agree, but the key word there is learn. They have to learn that that’s not allowed. And they have to really, it’s not about learning to inhibit a behavior, it’s actually learning to develop all the skills necessary to engage in a different behavior. And I think that’s where we often get it wrong. We see a kid hit and we say, we have to teach them not to hit. Okay, well if you want the outcome to be my kid isn’t hitting when they’re mad, we have to think about what behaviors are we actually going to teach instead, and that’s where we can start. I just think that is a much more useful frame.
Dr. Danielle (24:38):
Absolutely. And so I’m a professor in a school of medicine, and so hence I think of medical analogies, but we wouldn’t just want to treat the symptoms of a disease if someone came to us and is having problems, we wouldn’t just want to treat the different symptoms. We ideally want to treat the underlying cause so the symptoms go away. There is a parallel here in parenting. We are very often treating the symptoms, the things that we see, meaning the temper tantrums, the talking back, the what we might call is not acceptable behavior, but there is usually an underlying cause there. And in my book I break it down into, I call them the three E’s sometimes because it helps me to sort of keep everything straight. So we talked a little bit about extroversion, but the other part is effortful control because we know that some kids are more impulsive and risk taking just naturally.
And that’s another place where that might be the child that gets upset and suddenly hits the other child, but it’s not necessarily because they’re a bad child, a mean child because they don’t understand that hitting is okay. It’s because their brain is just wired more toward fast, quick impulsive reactions. And so learning, how do you manage that? How do you get those skills? Once you work on that, then the hitting will reduce. But if you’re just focused on the hitting, then that impulsivity is going to show up in kind different sorts of other ways too. The anxiety piece is another one, the fearfulness piece that’s the 30 is emotionality. Some kids are just quicker to big emotions and they have these responses that seem out of proportion as we might view them to the situation. And so whether that’s a hugely fearful response or whatnot, all kids get a little bit afraid sometimes.
But the child that’s hiding behind your leg all the time, if there’s someone, a friendly little dog that comes by, not a snarling kind of dog, but they have these disproportionate emotional responses and it could be fearful or sometimes it’s the acting out responses. And very often what we do is we treat that symptom and we feel like, well, we need to punish or we need to say no, absolutely come out here and say hello or say it’s okay or pet the dog or whatever it might be. But we’re not actually getting at how do you address that underlying difference in the way that they’re wired so that they can have the skills to do that.
Dr. Sarah (27:39):
Yeah. Can you talk more about the emotionality piece? Because I think parents, when they think about extroversion, introversion, that sort of spectrum, that’s really relatable. We all kind of know, like you said, we all have a good sense of where we fall on that spectrum, and it’s usually outwardly pretty easy to see with our kids where they might fit. And even with effortful control, usually if a kid has a lot of skills in effortful control, they are a pretty regulated, predictable, composed kid. They could follow directions, they can inhibit their impulses, they can really plan. And the kids who can’t look predictably, they just have so much trouble inhibiting behaviors. The emotionality piece I think gets a lot more, for whatever reason, difficult for parents. And maybe it’s because when a kid has really outsized emotions, they trigger our emotions as well. And so I think the idea of thinking about a child’s emotionality on a spectrum as well as like, okay, my kid has high emotionality or is lower on that their range is lower, is a really helpful way to actually depersonalize our kid’s emotions because that one is very difficult to separate from.
Dr. Danielle (29:07):
It is extremely difficult. And I had a highly emotional son, and these things are genetically influenced. And of course it’s not just our children who have dispositions, it’s us as well too. And certainly I am someone who I had very strong big feelings when I was a child. Now as a grownup, you learn the skills and you regulate, but nobody knows how to push your buttons like your children. And so that is a hard one. Very often it does produce an emotional response in the parent, especially if you are higher on emotionality. And sometimes when I’m talking with multi parents talk about, that’s why it can also feel like sometimes children have a better fit with one parent than another parent. And that could be because either they’re matched in terms of, so I definitely understood my son’s emotionality because I remembered feeling that way as a small child, but it also pushed my buttons in terms of I had to be very intentional for him to not evoke that kind of more emotional response in me as well, which of course makes us not our best parenting selves.
Whereas his father, it was a very different setup where there’s certain things that he just couldn’t understand these disproportionate emotional outbursts. And so that was more puzzling, confusing to him. And so I just mentioned this because sometimes it can be a source of tension between parents too, because they see things differently, they evoke different responses in the parents, et cetera. But to go back to the kiddos, the challenging piece with really emotional children is that they tend to be the ones that we most want to respond with punishment. That’s not okay, you can’t do that. We are very much treating the symptoms there per my previous analogy, and that is the equivalent of punishing a child who can’t do algebra and thinking it’s going to get better. And of course, as you might imagine, if you’re punished because you’re not good at algebra and you just really don’t understand it, that’s going to go one of two ways.
You’re either going to be really mad for constantly being punished for something or maybe both. You’re going to feel really bad about yourself. What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this and I keep getting into trouble? And that’s really these children who have outsized emotions that that’s just the way their brains are wired. It’s very often frightening to them too. And so now they’re getting all this negative feedback from the world, from parents sometimes from peers or from teachers, and it both, it can either make them very angry at those them which can lead to more behavior problems, or it can lead them to feel like lesser than What’s wrong with me? Because it is something that often, it’s kind of a disposition, it’s not a choice. And that’s I think, a key thing for parents to remember. And that was one of the things that helped me in working with my son is to remember it feels like they’re being manipulative or they’re choosing to be bad or choosing to engage in behavior that you’ll have previously discussed is not okay. And I think that remembering actually this is their biology, working against them in that moment can help us as parents to keep our calm.
Dr. Sarah (33:08):
Yeah, I think that that is so important because like you said at the beginning, when our kids do something, feel something enormous, whatever, if it’s an emotion expression or a behavior and we have a really big reaction, maybe it’s because it made us really mad that they did that. Maybe it’s also just because we’re terrified. We’re like, why is this happening? And the panic of, I’ve got to shut this down. This is not, I have to make this stop. That can actually, you’re saying, activate more of it or have other kinds of consequences in the long run in terms of their self-esteem or their sense of self or their belief that they can be loved and seen as good by the world. And so I’m curious, do you have any thoughts on how to support parents? I imagine knowing our own kind of genetic predispositions and our own temperament and biological underpinnings helps a little bit there.
Dr. Danielle (34:17):
And so for those who are interested, I actually have surveys in my book, short little questionnaires that you can fill out on your children and on yourself. And I sometimes kid around that. The first part of the book is a little bit about the science behind how genes and the environment come together to impact kids’ behavior. And if you don’t really care about the science and you’re just willing to take my word for it, you can kind of skip those a couple of chapters. But then it’s the part the parents I think really want, which is to help them figure out where their child falls on some of these key dimensions and to help make it manageable. Talk about these three key dimensions of extroversion, emotionality, and effortful control, because those tend to be the places that whether we realize it or not are creating many of the frustration and friction points in our families.
And so by understanding where your child falls and then where you fall, then what you can think about and really kind of what I walked through is different parenting strategies work better for different types of kids. And when we bring our own dispositions into it too, sometimes there are easy matches between parents and kids, and that’s when parenting just feels easy. And I will tell you, I’m a blended family now, and my stepdaughter is one of those highly agreeable, what we might call very easy kids. I didn’t know they existed. I mean, I know all behavior is on a bell curve, so scientifically I knew there must be those kids at that upper end of the distribution. I just didn’t have one and none of my siblings or friends have them. And so I can get, now I have a firsthand window into how sometimes parenting just feels easy.
And that can be because you have a child who has a fairly laid back easy temperament. They’re not highly emotional, they’re good on effortful control. They’re probably not highly extroverted or introverted, so they can kind of go with the flow either way. Sometimes there’s just an easy match between parents and kids that helps. So I talked about you’re the extroverted parent and you have the extroverted child and everybody’s excited to go to the park and go to the playground and go to sporting events that can make parenting feel easy. But there’s a lot of places where mismatches can make it difficult. And so that’s why I’m a big knowledge is power. Clearly I’m a researcher, but I’m also all about how can we take all the honestly, billions of dollars in research that’s been generated and apply it to make our lives easier. And so I think by filling out some surveys or even just thinking about where your child falls on some of these key dimensions can allow you then to get in front of it and think about, okay, what are the pieces that are most important for my child that might be causing these friction points?
And how do we focus on those? What are the parenting strategies that are going to be most important for helping my child develop this lagging skill that they might have? And that’s really how I like to think about it. Highly emotional children are highly impulsive children. What they have are lagging skills in terms of it just doesn’t come as naturally to them, or maybe they’re going to grow into it at a later stage than other kids. And that’s why it can create some of these challenges with parenting.
Dr. Sarah (38:01):
And are there ways that you recommend parents support that skill development?
Dr. Danielle (38:06):
Absolutely. And so even if we take the extroversion introversion one because an easy one, and it’s one that I use sometimes because it’s also one that we can start with because there doesn’t tend to be a lot of judgment from the world one way or another.
Dr. Sarah (38:26):
It feels safe and neutral.
Dr. Danielle (38:28):
It feels safer. So we’ll start with that one. But it can inadvertently lead to challenges, meaning, so if you took my much more introverted child and I am the one who’s constantly trying to take him places that are not a good fit, before I had realized that and kind of gotten in front of the problem, you could see how that would play out in a not good way because it’s essentially like, well, why are we fighting? First of all, it’s causing all this tension. It’s causing fighting at the home and the family, but it’s also, well, why can’t you go with all these people and do all these things? Or it starts to lead the child to think they’re lesser. It starts to lead the parent to think what’s wrong with my child? And so an easy example here is, okay, so you need to actually slowly introduce social settings.
Introverted children also tend to need more downtime between activities before they’re ready to regroup, et cetera. On the other hand, if you’re a more introverted parent with an extroverted child, it can be exhausting. And so I talk about strategies to figure out how to both fulfill your child’s needs for lots of interaction, but also as a parent to support your mental health. And so one of the things that I know some parents who are in that situation too, is they find classes where we happen to have a little Saturday morning class at our nature center, and there was someone teaching the kids and there were tons of kids and they were running around learning about a different insect or bird or something every week. And this was one of my dear friends. They could sit in the corner and read a book and recharge and note their child is doing their thing.
They didn’t feel the need to be hanging out with all the other parents. They could quietly get some of their time and their child got what they needed. So those are just kind of some examples of how you can find ways. And now let’s talk about, for example, the emotionality. One of the more challenging ones, often our default, or even I’ll say for kids who are not extremely high on this, sometimes the kind of classic two levers that we use, rewards and consequences, that finding the right balance of those things can work pretty well in terms of shaping kids’ behavior. It’s not going to work well for kids who are extremely high on emotionality. They’re going to end up getting feeling like they’re being punished all the time. There’s far more consequences going on than rewards that’s not good for anyone’s mental health. And so as I know, there’s strategies that parents can use to essentially work with kids who are higher on emotionality, and they really revolve around how do you catch kids when they’re being good?
How do you reward that? But also how do you help them learn to manage those really strong feelings? How can you help their skill development in that sense? So that’s a place where those are a couple examples of how by understanding where your child falls on different dimensions, and if you’re interested, there’s a lot more about this in the book. There’s kind of the how to of kids with these temperaments, these strategies work better if your child falls over here, you might really want to be focusing on this piece and not worried so much on this piece. Because as parents, I feel like so often we’re trying to do it all and it often doesn’t work and it’s exhausting for us. And so that’s where I think the whole understanding how your child is wired can allow you to get in front of problems and help you focus on what matters most.
Dr. Sarah (42:18):
Yes, it’s like if you have, how do I usually say a roadmap, if you have a roadmap to your child, you can sort of see this is what they’re sensitive about. This is how their nervous system responds to things. This is the things that are really stimulating for them. These are the things that they seek out, they enjoy, they’re regulating for them. These are the kinds of things that I love to help parents do is kind of map out their kid. And it sounds like you’re doing a really similar thing kind of with these three E’s.
Dr. Danielle (42:59):
Dr. Sarah (43:01):
Then you have a frame. Now you can say, oh, I know what tools to pull for these different things, because too often I just feel like parents are told, and listen, I don’t think this is really parents. I think this is a really hard challenge right now in the world of parenting because there are so many sort of people putting out these sort of rules, and then people are like, okay, I’m going to follow this model and I’m just going to follow these rules. But it’s like we can’t just pick a model because we like the person teaching the model and it makes sense to us. We have to look at our kid first and then say what is going to be the thing that’s going to help them? And sometimes it’s not the things that help us, which is super confusing and we got to individualize it.
Dr. Danielle (43:51):
Absolutely. And so in the field of medicine, we talk about precision medicine and there’s literally billions of dollars now that are going into precision medicine. And the whole idea is that when most of us go to the doctor, we go because something is wrong. Some of us are good with our preventative care, but most doctor’s appointments are because something is wrong. And then there’s this trial and error process of trying to figure out what’s wrong and how do we fix it. And that’s a costly process to everybody involved. And there’s again a parallel here with parenting. Very often we reach out when we feel like, oh, something is going wrong here, but we can get in front of that because by understanding how our kids are wired, we know a ton about genetics and biology now and brain development. We know all of our kids are different.
And when we parent with that in mind, when we sort of start thinking about our child and how they’re wired, we can get in front of problems and reduce the likelihood that they’re going to blow up into full blown problems before they’ve even started. And as much as I talk about genetics, because obviously I’m trained in both genetics, but I always also want to remind parents, it’s the whole DNA is not destiny. So our kids have dispositions, but that does not mean they are destined to develop particular problems. It does mean that it might be a bit of a road in front of you, as you said, for helping your child learn things that don’t come to them naturally. The whole parenting is a marathon, not a sprint kind of thing. You’re not going to suddenly teach them overnight probably there’s not going to be a quick fix. But to know that by working with your child and then slowly teaching them these skills, it might not come naturally to them, but they will learn. And certainly the environment still plays a big role in shaping kids’ outcomes.
Dr. Sarah (46:05):
Yeah, I think that’s so important and validating because yes, I think it is critical that we appreciate the fact that our kid is born who they are, and we don’t get to pick and we don’t mold them. They’re not this empty vessel that it’s our job to fill. And that I think coming into parenthood and approaching your child from that vantage point is really important because I think it allows us to be curious observers and sort of detectives rather than the creator, which is a good place to, I think being the curious observer is a better place to parent it from. It’s just less trust, less pressure. But in that curious observer role, it’s not like your passive observer that just watches your child helplessly.
You’re a huge role in the interplay because development is a dynamic interplay. You said that earlier, and I think that’s very accurate. We are doing a dance from the minute our kid is born to the end of our lives, we’re going to be doing a dance with them. So what dance do you want to dance? It all matters. But the intentionality, I think, and radical acceptance that sometimes this dance isn’t going to be that fun or it’s going to be hard, but I matter, the way I move matters, the way my kid moves, the way I respond to how my kid moves matters, it’s not irrelevant.
Dr. Danielle (47:44):
Absolutely. And there’s the analogy of the shepherd and the flock, right? Meaning we sometimes think that it’s our job to create the sheep. I mean, we might’ve physically created them, but the sheep are there and they’re doing their own thing. Now we have a lot of influence on what pasture we put them in. Do they have grass where they can grow or do they have none so they die off? But it’s a matter of we can determine the environmental conditions that can help teach them skills they don’t have that can essentially give them opportunities to express their strengths, that we can help them learn to see who they are as a wonderful gift. I sometimes think that that’s one of the most important things that we can do as a parent. So does your risk risk-taking child feel like, wow, your parent is celebrating you as like, oh my gosh, you have so much energy, you’re doing so many things like wow, it’s great to try lots of things in life.
We need to be careful though a little bit, because think about it, if you tried jumping off out of a high tree, you could break your leg. And so we don’t want that to happen. But so you can help mold and scaffold their experiences where they are embracing the things. You’re helping me sometimes say, reduce potential pitfalls while helping them achieve their potential. Your child that is maybe higher on anxiety, do they essentially see that as like, oh, I’m just such an anxious, awful person. I get nervous all the time. It’s like, well, you know what? It’s good to have a little bit of anxiety. It means you’re going to prepare for things and you’re going to study for things. And often people who are paying more attention are more empathetic and they’re really good friends, and those are all amazing qualities. But it does mean that sometimes if you think about things too much and you get stuck in that rut in your head of worry, worry, worry, then it can cause problems. So how are we going to learn to identify if it’s leading to problems and teach skills so that it doesn’t turn into problems? Well, at the same time, seeing it’s okay to have those feelings. They can be good things too. And so I think helping our kids see the way that they naturally are as strengths, and then helping think about, okay, but what are some of the possible pitfalls that come along with this so we can curb those? Essentially, those are some of the really gifts we can give our kids as parents.
Dr. Sarah (50:39):
Yeah. And then I like that because I think separating, seeing things as our child’s strengths plus potential pitfalls. The pitfalls aren’t our kid in that metaphor. The child is the strength. The child’s attributes are seen as the good. And yes, there can be outcomes of those attributes that could have challenges attached to them, but those challenges aren’t the kid. And I think that is a very different way of thinking about a child instead of saying, my kid is tough, my kid can’t do these things. My kid is, there’s a whole bunch of range of the way people describe their kids. But even an anxious kid, I work with a lot of families who have kids with anxiety, and it’s not like parents have tons of empathy for it. I think it’s easier to have empathy for the frightened child than the angry child, but there’s still, that’s just that emotionality piece of just what emotion is getting expressed.
But the highly anxious child we have empathy for, but we also feel like we have to rescue it, and we feel like we have to. Don’t think a lot of times we have trouble communicating, a lot of confidence that they can cope with those feelings. And so being able to say, Hey, you have a lot of feelings about this. You worry about this. You pay attention to this stuff. You feel things in a strong way, all that’s fantastic. Those are your strengths. And when you avoid doing these things, you don’t learn how to believe you can do them. So we got to practice. So I love that.
Dr. Danielle (52:23):
And you talked about separating the child from some of these challenges that they might be having. And so one of the things that you might do in your practice, but I talk about a little bit in the book, is a strategy for helping the child see that differentiation and to learn that is naming that big emotion that they might be experiencing as something, and so that then they can see like, oh, let’s say it’s birch and maybe Burt for one child might be overwhelming anxiety, and Bert for another child might be when they get so mad. And so when you’re talking to your child and doing this kind of collaborative problem solving with them to think, okay, so what are we going to do? So now you and your child are collaborating, you’re on the same page. What are we going to do when Burt shows up? Then it’s like, okay, your child is also recognizing there’s things I can do to address this thing. Meaning either high anger or this sort of impulsive feelings or anxiety. When I feel this coming, when Bert shows up, what am I going to do? And then you talk about the skills and you practice the skills, and they can then start to make that association of like, uh oh, here comes Bert, right? Oh, that’s right. I need to take some deep breaths or like, oh, and they can go into it…
Dr. Sarah (53:58):
I am not Bert.
Dr. Danielle (54:01):
Exactly. I am not Bert. We’re going to work on managing Bert.
Dr. Sarah (54:04):
I love that. I actually do that a lot, a lot with kids in my practice. This sort of personifying the worry part of my brain or the angry part of my brain and giving it a name, making it feel very not so scary. Yes. A metaphor that I often use with kids that I think is super helpful actually is are you familiar with Harry Potter? Yes. Is that a big thing for you guys? Okay, so I think it’s in the third book, but there’s the Professor Lupin comes and he teaches them the ridiculous curse, or he teaches them the spell to get rid of the bogger. And the Bogger basically shows you your worst fear. It manifests in your biggest fear. And so the way that you disarm it is you picture something, the silliest thing in your mind that you can think of and you say ridiculous.
And the Bogger turns into this goofy version of the thing. And so I love showing that clip to kids in my practice and sort of having them so personify the worry part of their brain. And I do this for anger too, whatever it is. And a lot of times I’ll ask the kid to describe, well, what do they look like? Let’s imagine them. And usually there’s something kind of big and strong and powerful and a little intimidating because it’s a big part of their brain that takes over a lot. And so one of the things that we do is we have to give it the ridiculous curse or the ridiculous spell, and we have to make it silly and goofy and tiny and squeaky and something that you can overpower really easily and you’re in charge of it, and you can boss it back and say, you need to sit down, can chip. I’m talking now. So it helps them to sort of feel really powerful over this part of their brain. Oh, I love that. And that made me think of that because it’s fun because kids, I love Harry Potter. Kids love it.
Dr. Danielle (56:09):
It’s funny that you say that. I remember I like bought all the Harry Potter books when they came out and was obsessed with it. And now I was suddenly thinking, oh my gosh, how long ago was that? Now? I know. It’s been a while. When you were describing that, I was like, oh yeah, I vaguely remember that in the book. But gosh, how many years ago now was that?
Dr. Sarah (56:27):
I know, but it’s timeless. I know there’s been some controversy, but I do think that the story is magical quite literally. But it makes me happy. But I think it’s actually a really useful thing for kids, which it just made me think about it when you were talking about that. But if people want to read your book, learn more about your research, where can they find you?
Dr. Danielle (56:49):
Yes. So you can go to my website, which is danielle dick.com, where I try and put out a lot of free resources for parents. And I write blogs on Medium and Psychology Today. And you can find all of that there at my website. Or you can go to thechildcode.com or Amazon or other places where books are sold. And the Child Code, as I mentioned, it has both information to understand your child a little bit better, but then surveys where you can actually try and figure out your child, and then a whole section about what kind of parenting strategies work best depending on where your child falls on different dimensions. So you can learn more at thechildcode.com.
Dr. Sarah (57:32):
That’s amazing. Thank you so much. This is so fun talking with you.
Dr. Danielle (57:37):
Absolutely. It was so fun being here. Thanks, Sarah.
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