Dancing on the Head of a Pin

Not too long ago I heard a presentation by Dr. Paul Rasmussen entitled “The Human Condition and The Law of Movement.”  His main thesis was “Life is a process of movement through advancing time and changing circumstances grounded in the desire for things to go well while having to deal with the inevitable challenges that life presents.


Dr. Rasmussen also asserted that as babies we come into the world with an infantile orientation characterized by: “I want what I want when I want it and I don’t want what I don’t want when I don’t want it and when I don’t want it you will know it.”  As we age he said, we hopefully develop a more mature orientation characterized by: “I understand that I can’t necessarily do everything I want and some of the things that I don’t want to do simply need to get done.


The job of parents is to help their children move from the infantile orientation to the mature orientation.  That job is made more difficult when the child struggles with developmental delays, trauma, or mental illness, but the lesson still has to be learned in order for that child to eventually function in the world when he or she reaches adulthood.  Of course, we all are aware of adults who approach the world with an infantile orientation.    These individuals continuously struggle to meet their tasks of life (e.g. social, work, intimate) and being in relationship with them is generally unpleasant.


Now it is perhaps not surprising to think that people generally want their lives to go well.  What was somewhat surprising was that Dr. Rasmussen shared some research that indicated that the vast majority (80%) of our lives we are dealing with the fairly mundane if not downright unpleasant details of life.  It is only a relatively small percentage (20%) of life during which we experience those moments of joy, happiness, intimacy, laughter and connection.  So, no, it’s not just you - the 80-20 rule holds true for everyone – we all get stuck in traffic, have a kid home sick or get sick ourselves, and have bills to pay more often than our best friend calls just when we needed a laugh.  But, some people are better at accepting the 80% as an imperfect part of life they have to adapt to and recognizing the 20% as something to truly celebrate when it happens. 


Adults with a mature orientation – as well as children and adolescents whose parents have coached them towards developing that mature orientation – are far more likely to adapt when life does not go their way.  They are less likely to get stuck in rigid patterns that keep them stuck in a perpetually reactive stance towards frustration, disappointment, and annoyance.  And they are far more likely to truly see and experience the moments of joy.


Talking about Temperament


Temperament is the natural disposition of a person – a combination of mental, physical and emotional traits.  It is not reflected in occasional behavior, but is a pattern that is consistent over time.  Temperament can be thought of as the built-in wiring a child has from birth.  Temperament is generally described by a constellation of nine characteristics and each person – even children born to the same family – will have each of these nine characteristics in different proportions.

Activity Level  -

This trait is characterized by the amount of body movement one spontaneously generates.  A child with this trait at a difficult level will be very active, restless and fidgety, would rarely slow down and would hate to be confined.  Sitting still at a desk or the dinner table is very hard for this child.


Quality of Mood  -

This trait is characterized by the amount of pleasant and cheerful behavior (positive mood) one exhibits as contrasted with fussy, sad, and unpleasant behavior (negative mood.  A child with this trait at a difficult level might be cranky or overly serious and may appear to get little pleasure from life.  Getting along with peers may be difficult for this child.


Approach/Withdrawal –

This trait looks at how a person reacts to new people and new experiences.  A child with this trait at a difficult level is likely to be shy and clingy and may stubbornly refuse to go forward in new situations.  This child may struggle with school refusal and making new friends.


Rhythmicity (Biological Regularity) –

This trait looks at a person’s eating, sleeping and elimination habits.  A child with this trait at a difficult level might get hungry and tired at unpredictable times making regular meal and bed times a source of conflict.  This child may be hard to potty train.


Adaptability –

This trait is characterized by how quickly or slowly a person adapts to change in routines or overcomes an initial negative response.  A child with this trait at a difficult level is likely to be anxious and resistant to changes in schedule, food or clothing.  He/she can be inflexible and particular which may be a source of stress when unexpected events occur in the family or classroom.


Sensory Threshold –

This trait looks at how sensitive a person is to sensory stimuli – particularly unpleasant stimuli - in the environment (e.g. noise, lights, smells, tastes, the weather, pain, etc.)  A child with this trait at a difficult level will be easily bothered by the way food or people smell, how clothes feel, and the brightness of lights.  This sensitivity can cause irritability and a lack of focus.


Intensity of Reaction -
This trait is characterized by how strongly one reacts to situations – it is the amount of energy of mood expression one puts out whether positive or negative.  A child with this trait at a difficult level would be loud and forceful in all emotional responses.  This can result in confusion and irritation from others who expect a more subtle response.


Distractibility –

This trait looks at how easily one is distracted by unexpected stimuli.  A child with this trait at a difficult level will likely have trouble concentrating and paying attention, may tend to get lost in his/her own thoughts rather than listening, and often forgets instructions because he/she was only half paying attention.  This can create difficulties in school and be a source of stress at home.


Persistence (Attention Span) -

This trait is characterized by how long a person will stay at a difficult task without giving up.  While persistence can be a very useful trait for many things, a child with this trait at a difficult level is likely to be extremely stubborn, will not give in, and might persevere in a tantrum for an hour or more.


Using the chart below rate your child for each of these characteristics as E (easy), M (moderate), or D (difficult.)  Then rate yourself.



Your Child


Activity Level 

E               M               D

E               M               D

Quality of Mood

E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D

Sensory Threshold

E               M               D

E               M               D

Intensity of Reaction

E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


When children have one or more traits described as difficult, they can be a challenge, but the challenge will be exacerbated if their caretaker’s temperament does not provide a good fit.  For example, a child who reacts intensely in all situations (i.e. is rated D in the Intensity of Reaction trait) might be difficult for a parent whose sensory threshold is low (i.e. the parent is rated D in the Sensory Threshold trait).  A child with a difficult (i.e. high) activity level might cause conflict with a parent who has an easy (i.e. low) activity level.  And a parent and child who are both extremely persistent (i.e. on the difficult end of this trait) may find themselves in chronic power struggles.


Much of parenting is understanding what is going on for our children and being proactive as often as possible to keep things running smoothly.  Temperament and each of these individual traits is an ingrained part of our and our children’s personalities.  We might not be able to change them, but we can choose how we react to things we cannot change.  Accepting our children for who they are, realizing our inherent contribution to conflicts with them, and finding ways to celebrate their uniqueness – even when it occasionally drives us crazy – will reduce conflict and tension.


Adapted from Conscious Discipline, 7 Basic Skills for Brain Smart Classroom Management, Dr. Becky Bailey, 2000 

I Need a Hug

Virginia Satir, an American social worker and author who pioneered advances in family therapy, is credited with saying: “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

 That’s a lot of hugs!  But the interesting thing is, there is science to back it up.  Turns out that Virginia knew what she was talking about.

 A “good hug” (it has to last at least 20 seconds) is the fastest way to get oxytocin flowing in your body.  Oxytocin is sometimes called “the love drug.”  It helps calm your central nervous system.  It also boosts endorphins leading to positive emotions.  Improved oxytocin flow can lower your blood pressure, which helps when you’re anxious.  It lowers cortisol  (the stress hormone) levels.  And it increases your sense of social connectedness and belonging.

 Research shows that couples that hug often are more likely to stay together.  And some research indicates that hugs with their oxytocin boosting power can reduce pain.  So, when your child is hurt (emotionally or physically), a hug is definitely a good idea.



Turn Down the Volume

Noise. It is all around us. From the radio or TV blaring in the background to the latest pitch man hawking the next thing you have to have.

 It is hard as a parent not to have "noise" interfere with the decisions we need to make as parents. Whether it is a well-meaning extended family member or the latest book on parenting there lots of people or resources telling us how we should parent our children. Unfortunately, many of them have no idea what it is like to go through what you do on a daily basis.

 Now this is not to say that you should not take helpful information that others share with you either in verbal or written format. What I am saying is that we do not ignore our own internal voice in this process. You know your child in a way that no one else can. Your unique insights about your child is a strength and can be utilized in making decisions regarding your care for them.

 What this means more specifically is that instead of looking outside of ourselves that we are looking within ourselves to tap what we already know. One of the best way to do this is to set aside time to reflect on the decisions you are facing with your children. This does not have to be a particularly long period of time. You should focus for period of time reflecting on what is important to you and what some of the next steps might be in caring for your child.

 It is important to give yourself the space to engage in this activity. With all of things that are going on in your life, sometimes carving out this time is one of the more difficult things to do. But I can assure you, that it will pay dividends to help you remain more focused on what is important.

 Take 10 minutes of quiet time today to reflect on what you would like to reinforce, support, or change as a parent and identify one or two steps you can take this week to implement a more intentional plan as a parent. Write them down or stick them in your phone.

 This brief period of reflection will put you one step closer to being a proactive parent versus a reactive parent.

You did what!!!

Our kids often surprise us. At times though not in a good way. It is the emotional moment of reaction that can trip us up.

When the emotional part of the brain is stimulated, it causes our logical, thinking side to shut down. No surprise that even the best of us do and say really dumb things when we are upset.

Solution? Give yourself time to calm down and get the thinking part of your brain working again. Actually, it can be quite helpful to say to your kid "I am so upset right now that I cannot even deal with this. We will talk later!" Just make sure the talk later part happens. There is nothing wrong with kids having to "wait" to see what their consequence is.


P.S. Your kid's brain works the same way. So don't expect to work things out when they are upset either.