There was almost no practical advice in Chess and Thomas's publications about how to handle a temperamentally extreme child, and reading their work didn't make Ryan easier to handle. What they had to say was so comforting and empowering, though, that I could begin to relax and respond to him with more understanding and far less anxiety and self-blame. Chess and Thomas call the compatibility between a child's temperament, the environment, and the parents' caregiving style "goodness of fit." There's an abundance of techniques that work well to increase goodness of fit--techniques that I'd learn over time, with some trial and error. For instance, I'd learn to reduce novelty whenever possible for Ryan by not attempting too many changes at once, to familiarize him with a new situation beforehand whenever possible and allow him time to warm up, and sometimes to let him refuse to do even fun things that "all" the other kids seemed to enjoy. I was able to respond more neutrally to Ryan, since his behavior no longer took on potentially loaded meanings. He was coping as well as he could. My job wasn't to make him a different person, but to find ways to help each of us improve our coping skills. And with our worries eased, my husband and I occasionally found a lifesaving sense of humor about our parenting challenges.
Ryan, and later his sister, who had a different but also extreme temperament (highly active, very intense, and low adapting), practically compelled me to specialize in temperament-related issues. I now knew with certainty that there were other children like mine and other parents who needlessly felt worried, alone, and even hopeless. I knew firsthand that learning about temperament could be life changing. Having an awareness of temperament has helped me as a therapist to be curious, rather than judgmental or prematurely diagnostic. I have a much broader tolerance and understanding of a wider range of normal, if unusual, behaviors in children.
Dimensions of Temperament
A foundation in temperament informs my listening as a therapist. If the therapist I saw when I was trying to find my way with Ryan had been familiar with temperament, she might have identified my own low adaptability. In a short space of time, I'd experienced numerous changes, including getting married, giving birth to my first child, and moving several times. Ryan's temperament required a huge adjustment on top of many others, and my coping skills were sorely taxed.