Temperament is what?

Temperament is an inherent part of a child’s character and can be shaped but not changed. Understanding and learning about different temperaments is important because it affects you as a parent, your child, and the relationship between you.  Temperament shapes responses and reactions – “how” a child does something, not what they do.  It is a child’s behavioral style.  Temperament is not personality, as personality addresses more of the “why” of behavior.  Many researchers feel that children are born with their natural style of interacting with or reacting to people, places, and things – their temperament.  There is a difference of opinion among leading researchers over whether temperaments are inborn or develop early in life through an interaction of genetic and environmental factors.

Temperament influences how a child behaves toward individuals and objects around them and how the environment affects them.  This concept also indicates that many behavioral tendencies are inborn – not the result of faulty parenting.  At a recent parenting class at Meridian Youth Treatment Center, parents were asked how understanding temperament would be helpful for them.  For one couple, understanding their child’s temperament helped reduce their anxieties, especially when their child acted out in a non pro-social manner.  Another parent exclaimed in what seemed to be his insightful moment – “Then it can’t be all our fault!”  He felt relieved to know that his child’s difficulties where not due to faulty parenting.  This parent went on to say that if he had understood this concept years ago he could have started taking preventative steps to help his son then.  Parents who take the time to understand their child’s temperament can work with their child rather than trying to change his or her inborn traits.  Knowledge of temperament can help parents adjust their parenting style and arrange their environment to help meet the temperament needs of their child, promoting harmony and well-being in the family.

In the late 1950s, researchers found nine traits that were present at birth and continued to influence development in important ways throughout life.  Since then, research has continued to show that children’s health and development are influenced by temperament. To examine a child’s temperament health professionals use a series of interviews, observations, and questionnaires that measure nine temperament traits.

These nine temperament traits are:

  1. Activity Level:  How active is the child generally?  Is the child always moving and doing something or does he or she have a more relaxed style?
  2. Regularity:  Refers to the predictability of biological functions like appetite and sleep.  Is the child regular in his or her eating and sleeping habits or somewhat haphazard?
  3. Approach/Withdrawal:  Refers to a child’s characteristic response to a new situation or strangers.  Does he or she “never meet a stranger” or tend to shy away from new people or things?
  4. Adaptability:  How easily does the child adapt to transitions and changes, like switching to a new activity?  Can the child adjust to changes in routines or plans easily or does he or she resist transitions?
  5. Persistence:  This is the length of time a child continues in activities in the face of obstacles.  Does the child give up as soon as a problem arises with a task or does he or she keep on trying?  Can he or she stick with an activity a long time or does his or her mind tend to wander?
  6. Intensity:  Relates to the energy level of a response, whether positive or negative.  Does he or she react strongly to situations, either positively or negatively, or does he or she react calmly and quietly?
  7. Distractibility:  Refers to the degree of concentration and attention displayed when a child is not particularly interested in an activity.  Is the child easily distracted from what he or she is doing or can he or she shut out external distractions and stay with the current activity?
  8. Sensory Threshold:  How sensitive is a child to physical stimuli?  Is he or she bothered by external stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or food textures or does he or she tend to ignore them?
  9. Mood:  This is the tendency to react to the world primarily in a positive or negative way.  Does the child often express a negative outlook or is he or she generally a positive person?  Does his or her mood shift frequently or is he or she usually even-tempered?

According to Chess & Thomas, these traits combine to form three basic types of temperaments.  Approximately 65 percent of all children fit one of three patterns.

  • Forty percent of children are generally regarded as “easy or flexible.”  The child has a positive mood generally; quickly establishes regular routines and adapts easily to new experiences and calms self effectively.
  • Ten percent are regarded as “difficult, active, or feisty.”  The child tends to react negatively; cries frequently; has irregular routines; is slow to accept new experiences and cannot calm self.
  • Fifteen percent are regarded as “slow to warm up or cautious.”  The child is somewhat negative; has a low activity level; low adaptability; low intensity of mood and flat affect.

The other 35 percent of children are a combination of these patterns.

Knowing whether your child is inherently more active, more easily distracted, exhibits a higher intensity of emotional expression, and so forth is a good first step to understanding his or her nature.  By understanding these patterns, parents can tailor their parenting approach in such areas as expectations, encouragement, and discipline to suit the child’s unique needs.  For example, with the “Easy child” parents need to set aside special times to talk about the child’s frustrations and hurts because their child will most likely not ask for it.  Parents of a “Difficult child” will benefit from providing their child with opportunities for energetic play to release stored up energy and frustrations with some freedom of choice in order to allow these children to be successful.  These children will also benefit from advanced preparation of activity changes, which will help transitions from one place to another or one activity to another to go more smoothly.  Parents of a “Slow to warm up or cautious child” will benefit from structured routines and parenting in which you stick to your word.  Children with this temperament also benefit from being allowed ample time to establish relationships in new situations.

Parents also have temperaments.  A parent’s temperament influences how the parent experiences and reacts to his or her child’s behavior.  For example, if you are high in intensity you may react more strongly to your child’s refusal to try a new experience.  Parenting is also affected by your child’s temperament.  For instance, parents of children with more challenging temperament styles may find themselves being too firm if they have difficulty handling their child’s behavior or too permissive if they are worn out from dealing with the challenges.  Learning strategies tailored to your child’s temperament will help parents be more effective.

Parents can positively influence their child’s temperament by teaching their child that they will meet him half-way.  That is, parents will meet their child’s temperament needs, but also set certain expectations for their child’s behavior.  Parents can also teach their child to manage their temperament through acceptable outlets.  For example, research shows that highly inhibited children can become less inhibited if parents teach and give their child time to warm up when they are introduced to new people, places and things, rather than protect them from new experiences.

Parenting is one of the toughest jobs around.  Understanding temperament may make it a bit easier and more meaningful.  Parents who are tuned into their child’s temperament and who can recognize their child’s strengths will find life more enjoyable for themselves and for their children.

About Steven Petrus

Dr. Steven Petrus is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in psycho-educational assessment, child, adolescent and family therapy.
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