How understanding your child’s unique nature can make you a more effective parent

How understanding your child’s unique nature can make you a more effective parent

VCU professor Danielle Dick’s new book, ‘The Child Code,’ helps parents adapt their parenting strategies to fit how their child is wired.

Genetics influence every aspect of human behavior. But that biological fact is often ignored when it comes to parenting advice, which tends to perpetuate the myth that parenting techniques alone determine a child’s behavior and future.

In “The Child Code: Understanding Your Child’s Unique Nature for Happier, More Effective Parenting,” Danielle Dick, Ph.D., the Distinguished Commonwealth Professor of Psychology and Human and Molecular Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University and an internationally recognized expert on genetic and environmental influences on human behavior, explains how each child is uniquely coded with predispositions that affect their fearfulness, impulsivity, happiness, propensity for throwing tantrums and all other aspects of their personality.

Drawing on her research in developmental behavior genetics, as well as her experience as a parent, Dick, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine at VCU, shows parents how they can recognize their child’s genetic predispositions and then provides practical, individualized strategies to help navigate the child’s challenges and nurture their strengths.

“The Child Code,” published by Avery, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, will be released Sept. 14. Dick discussed the forthcoming book in an interview with VCU News.

The book talks about how each child is uniquely coded with predispositions that influence their behavior and personalities. What are some ways the book explains how parents can apply that knowledge?

Parents put so much pressure on themselves, especially in our culture right now. Never in human history have we spent so much time and effort parenting our children. And that creates a lot of stress on parents when kids are struggling or not being perfect little human beings. So, one of the messages that I really hope parents will take away is that they can take some of the pressure off! Our kids already contain their own instruction manuals, the so-called building blocks of life, that shape their development and behavior. We can help our kids grow and nudge them in particular directions, but it’s not all on us. So that’s one thing that I hope parents will find comforting.

The other big takeaway is that by understanding the way your child is wired, you can tailor your parenting strategies to what will work best for your child. The second half of the book covers three big temperamental dimensions that kids differ on. I call them the three E’s: extraversion, emotionality and effortful control. By understanding where your child falls on those dimensions, you can help them accentuate their strengths and overcome (or avoid!) potential challenges.

For example, kids that are high in extraversion versus kids that are low in extraversion have different environmental needs. As parents, we sometimes unwittingly put our kids in environments that are a mismatch with their nature — for example by putting kids who are low on extraversion in very active, busy, social settings, which can be overwhelming or distressing for them. And that can be a cause of temper tantrums and stress in the family, but very often we don’t even recognize the underlying cause.

Similarly, some kids are just more highly emotional than others. They are just more naturally predisposed to be easily frustrated or fearful. A lot of parents who have kids like that wonder, “What am I doing wrong?” Or “What’s wrong with my child?” They’re trying reward charts and consequences, and it’s not helping the behavior. There are actually different parenting strategies that can work better for these highly emotional kids.

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