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Dr. Heather Wittenberg: How to understand your child, using the “5 personalities of young children”

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here

In this interview with Dr. Heather Wittenberg, a practicing psychologist, specializing in the development of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, and a nationally known parenting writer, speaker, and television guest expert, we talk about how to really understand why your children act the way they do.

Dr. Heather also teaches a model of five different personalities that you can use to understand your child’s behavior.

Tags: Dr. Heather Wittenberg

Also in this interview:

About Dr. Heather Wittenberg

Dr. Heather Wittenberg is a working mom of four amazing kids. She is a practicing psychologist, specializing in the development of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, and is a nationally known parenting writer, speaker, television guest expert, and social media presence.

Through clients and partners such as Pull-Ups, Huggies, The University of Hawaii, and, Dr. Heather’s advice – based in neuroscience, road-tested in the real world, and translated into the grab-and-go terms that busy parents need - has reached hundreds of thousands of families.

Dr. Heather is also the force behind, an online resource for parents to help troubleshoot the challenges (and celebrate the awesomeness) of raising young children. Over the years, Dr. Heather has helped readers solve their most difficult sleeping, pooping, crying, and eating challenges. Whatever parenting curveballs you can throw at her, you’ll find Dr. Heather a sympathetic listener, a practical advice-giver, and darned good company.

Dr. Heather is releasing a new online potty training course, titled “Let’s Get This Potty Started! - The Babyshrink’s Online Course for Potty Training Your Toddler”.

Follow her on Instagram to find out when this course will be released. Her Instagram handle is @DrHeatherBabyShrink

Where to start to help your child feel heard, seen and understood

Dr. Heather says that to get your child to listen and cooperate, you need to start by trying to understand where they are coming from.

Sue Meintjes: What is your favorite strategy or technique for getting kids to listen and cooperate?

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: Well, I would say, understanding where the child is coming from. First and foremost, what their goal is. Expressing to them that you understand what their goal is, and you sympathize with it. But you need them to do it your way for now. Really expressing that you understand where they’re coming from.

That doesn’t mean you don’t hold the limit. That doesn’t mean you don’t have them do what you ultimately need them to do. But when children feel that they’re heard, seen, and appreciated, they’re much more likely to go along with you, even if they don’t really want to.

Sue Meintjes: Can you please give an example of how to understand a child’s goals in the moment and how a parent should respond to understand the child better and to help with cooperation?

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: Let’s consider the example of the child not following “House Rules”, by not staying out of the kitchen.

Start by determining why the child is breaking the rules. Perhaps they are hungry and want a snack? Perhaps they are lonely and want to be near you? Perhaps they are bored and would love to help you cook? Ask them what it is they want, to help you understand their motivation.

Then, show you get their perspective. “I can see you missed me all day when I was at work. I want to spend time with you, too. I cannot allow you in the kitchen while I cook because you could get hurt. Perhaps come sit just outside the gate, and we will talk about your day as I cook. Here is a snack, as well. As soon as dinner is done, we will sit together. And when you get old enough, you will always remember to stay out of the kitchen while I cook. But for now, I am here to help you remember by putting up the gate.” This approach takes your child into account and allows you to follow important home safety rules.

Sue Meintjes: I struggle to get my kids to listen when they are busy with something, or they want to do it their way. So just like getting on their level can really make a difference, and that is sort of what you are saying.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: Yes, exactly.

Why there is no “one-size-fits-all” parenting magic trick that works for all children

Have you ever read about a new parenting technique, only for it to completely fail when you try it with your child? Dr. Heather shares the reason why this often happens.

Sue Meintjes: Do you have any tips for how to practically do this? Are there any methods we can use to make it easier to show them that we are on their level and that we understand.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: Well, what’s so interesting, and what I’m always reminding parents about is, this isn’t a one size fits all situation. You know, because humans aren’t one size fits all, and so if you have multiple children, or you see other kids, you realize, “Oh, this technique works really well with this particular child. It doesn’t work at all with mine. How come?”

And that’s because my child has a completely different personality than the other child. And just like with adults, for some people, certain things work, and other things don’t, because it has to do with their personality and what works with their personality first.

How to fit your parenting approach to your child’s unique temperament

How you approach your active, high-spirited child is very different to how you would approach a cautious, observant child. Here’s how Dr. Heather recommends you vary your approach.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: So, for instance, for a child who’s very active and has a lot of energy, they’re not going to want to sit still and listen and do a boring task. Whereas a child who is more observant and quieter, you’re going to have an easier time getting them to sit and do something with you.

Customize your approach to the temperament and personality of your child. So, if you have a very active, high-spirited child, if you do something that’s like, “Let’s have a race and go see how quickly you can get ready for bed,” is much more likely to be successful.

And if you have a child that’s much more observant and cautious. Instead, you might say, “Oh, I’m noticing it’s almost time for bed. I want to give you a warning. I want to give you a reminder. And soon it’s going to be time for us to go get your teeth brushed, get dressed for bed”. Let them know in advance and walk them through it so they’re not startled, surprised, and upset with abrupt change.

So, you’re going to take a very different approach, depending on the personality of your child.

Sue Meintjes: So, it’s about understanding the personality of your child, to work from where the child is at. And you will do things differently for different children. Maybe like one child may be an active child, one child may be a cautious child, and you approach them differently.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: That’s right. And, the thing is, they have their personality evident from birth. It’s not fully formed from birth, but they have little hints that they give us from the beginning if they’re going to be, for instance, very active or very cautious. And that stays true, with some modifications, over time.

So, you start to understand, “Oh, I’ve got a very cautious child on my hand here. I’m going to adjust my approach accordingly.” And then similarly for the personalities of your other children. In the same family you may have quite different approaches that work with your different children.

It’s not a one size fits all situation. That’s why these sorts of one size fits all recommendations are always only sort of halfway successful. Because they work for some children. But then don’t work for others. And the parents of the other kids say, “Well, what’s wrong with me? Or what’s wrong with my kid? Because it doesn’t work?” And it’s like, “No, no, no.” That’s a misunderstanding of human nature and of child development.

Sue Meintjes: That’s why it sometimes feels like parenting advice doesn’t work, because your child is an individual with his own personality.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: That’s right. Yes.

The five most common Personalities of Young Children: which of these fit your child?

Dr. Heather has identified 5 common personalities that you can use to better understand your child and fit your parenting approach. Take some time and think about which of these personalities fit your child best.

Sue Meintjes: So, what type of personalities have you seen in your practice? What type of personalities do children embody, that you can look out for, to get to know your child’s personality?

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: There’s definitely types. It’s not an exhaustive list but based on what we know from child development and child temperament research, children are born hardwired to have a particular set of temperaments. And once they interact with the environment, it creates their personality.

There are five types that I identify in my upcoming potty-training course, which is called “Let’s Get This Potty Started”. I call these Potty Personalities, but they’re the personalities of young children, broadly speaking.

So, there’s an energetic, highly active type that I call “Tornado”.

There’s the easy temperament type, like some children are just straightforward and easy, and they’re called the “Eager Beaver”.

There’s the kind of child that just wants to play and hang around and doesn’t mind if they’re a mess and they take their time and I call that style the “Hippie Child”.

There’s the cautious one we were talking about before. The little worried, a little slow to warm, and sometimes a little stubborn, cautious, and slow to warm. I call this style the “Mule”.

The last one is “The Accountant”. The accountant is the child who’s a real rule follower and really clings to structure and rules and wants to know how they’re supposed to do things and is upset when everyone doesn’t follow the rules.

How to better understand your strong-willed child

I have a very strong-willed child, so I’m always trying to understand him better. Here’s what Dr. Heather shared about which of these personalities he likely falls under.

Sue Meintjes: In which category does a strong-willed child fall? Or is it not specifically in one category?

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: There’s a lot of different varieties of strong-willed, right? So sometimes a strong-willed child is highly active. A sort of tornado that has endless amounts of energy and is bouncing off the walls.

A lot of times a strong-willed child is the Mule personality, which just doesn’t like change and doesn’t want to jump right in and wants to hold back. And they’re more resistant to trying new things.

And so, you can’t get them to sort of go along with the program. It depends. Strong-willed children have their own sort of subcategories, don’t they?

Why your young children just won’t stay out of the kitchen...and what to do instead of yelling or threatening

I love this idea of understanding what your child is capable of understanding because it allowed me to get less frustrated and have more empathy with my children. Here’s what Dr. Heather recommends you do if you have young children that just don’t seem to follow your rules.

Sue Meintjes: Is there anything we can do with regards to house rules? Like one of these rules we are struggling with is keeping the kids out of the kitchen, because we’ve taken away the baby gate. Are there any specific tips you can give with regards to house rules?

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: House rules. I learned a lot about that from preschool teachers that I’ve interacted with over the years, and what preschool teachers understand is the combination of what the children are capable of understanding and modifying the environment accordingly.

So, is it time to remove the baby gates yet?

Maybe, but maybe not. If you’re using your best explanations and best guidance. “Guys, when I’m cooking, it’s dangerous for you to be in here. You need to be out in the living room,” and it is not working, then they’re perhaps too young to hold onto that.

Then you say you remind them, but you keep the baby gates up and you say, “Guys, when you’re old enough, you’ll remember. But right now, I have to help you remember.” You’re going to keep reminding them about what the rule is. But because of safety, you really have to be extra cautious.

In the olden days, what our parents and grandparents would do would just be to punish. “If you come in, I’m going to give you a smack or I’m going to yell at you.” Well, that works, but it’s not good. That’s right. It works. But for a bad reason.

Instead, we get in the perspective of where they are mentally. And a young child, especially up until about the age of seven, cannot consistently remember something like “Don’t come in the kitchen when I’m cooking,” because we know that their prefrontal lobes are not developed enough to hang on to that rule. They need reminders. They need that physical gate. They need more than we can give them if we have our back to them at the stove.

Sue Meintjes: That sounds great, I think it’s practical tips that I can immediately use in my own life.

It looks like it all comes back to an element of being mindful with your children. Just being mindful, seeing in the present moment what’s going on with them. What do they need, where are they coming from?

Why you need to be knowledgeable about what you can expect from your child at their current age

Understanding where your child is coming from, what their goals are, and what they are capable of, helps you be less frustrated when they don’t listen. Here Dr. Heather shares why consistency pays off in the end, even though the journey might be frustrating.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: It’s very important to be mindful, and it’s also very important to be knowledgeable about what we can reasonably expect from a child at a particular age.

If we understand that for a five-year-old or a six-year-old, in their brain they really haven’t progressed yet to the point where they can consistently remember enough.

If we know that, then we understand where they’re coming from. They want to be with us in the kitchen, or they’re hungry or whatever it is, and we say, “You know what? I’m going to put the gate up because I want you to be safe, but here’s a snack. And then when you get older, you’ll remember, but now I want to keep you safe.”

Sue Meintjes: Yeah, I think sometimes parents expect too much from their children. They expect them to remember the house rules and follow them, but like you say, children are not developmentally there yet, and parents need to understand that and be patient with their children.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: Yes, they will learn if we are consistent and remind and just remember, it might take a hundred more times for me to remind them, but they will eventually remember, especially if we’re consistent.

Sue Meintjes: I think it’s a bit frustrating for parents to consistently remind them.

Dr. Heather Wittenberg: Oh yeah. It’s very frustrating. Very frustrating. No doubt about it.

Sue Meintjes: Thank you for your great advice.

Action steps

Here are my action steps that I got from this interview. I hope you’ll find these useful as well:

  • Next time your child is misbehaving, first try understanding them and their situation, and why they are upset – help them feel heard, seen and understood
  • Think about your child’s personality, and then see which of the 5 Personalities of Young Children they fit into
  • Think about what you expect from your child, and then think about whether they are developmentally ready to do what you expect
  • Do some more research about what you can realistically expect from your child at their age (for example, how much can you expect them to remember, and which of your commands can they really understand?)
  • Follow Dr. Heather on Instagram here: @DrHeatherBabyShrink or find out more about Dr. Heather at her website,

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here