Parenting Your Child’s Temperament: Part One

Tips on how to understand and accept your child’s temperament.

One of my mother’s favorite stories recounts a family trip to Sea World when I was four, and my brother was two and a half. We were walking through the park when suddenly, we were approached by a man dressed in a penguin costume. I jumped behind my mother and hid my face in the folds of her skirt. In the same instant, my brother zoomed forward with his arms outstretched for a hug.

My brother and I were raised by the same parents, in the same household. We both inherited my mother’s brown eyes and my father’s chin. So why did we have such dissimilar reactions to that penguin?

According to Dr. William B. Carey M.D., the reason is likely due to differences in our temperaments. Carey is an attending physician in the division of General Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Much of the information in this article comes from Carey’s best selling book Understanding Your Child’s Temperament.

What Is Temperament?

All children are born with a combination of in-born traits that determine how they react to the world around them. Although “temperament” and “personality” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same.

“Personality is the totality of the human being,” says Carey. “It describes how bright you are, what you are interested in, what you are capable of doing. Temperament has nothing to do with abilities or how well adjusted you are. It is the style with which you approach the world.”

Understanding a child’s true temperament can help parents solve a host of issues including temper tantrums, power struggles and problems at school. More often than not, a child’s “bad” behavior stems from incongruities between their personal style and their environment. With a few simple modifications, parents can formulate an approach that minimizes conflict and maximizes a child’s chances of social and academic success.

The Nine Temperament Traits

In the late 1950’s, two researchers, Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, began collecting data for The New York Longitudinal Study. Chess and Thomas studied over two hundred children from infancy to age eight and identified nine in-born traits. The degree to which your child manifests each of these nine traits determines their overall temperament.

  • Activity Level
    How active is your child? Is he always on-the-go or is he more likely to sit quietly and move at a moderate pace?
  • Rhythmicity (regularity)
    Does your child eat, sleep, or have bodily functions (i.e. bowel movements) at predictable times of day, or does there seem to be little rhyme or reason to when they occur?
  • Approach or Withdrawal
    How eager is your child to jump into new activities and to meet new people? Does she tend to hang back or run towards strange men dressed as penguins?
  • Adaptability
    Does your child adapt easily and quickly to changes in his environment, or do disruptions to her daily routine upset him?
  • Threshold of Responsiveness
    How sensitive is your child to tastes, textures, light, smells, or sounds? Can she hear a pin dropping in Africa or is she unfazed by the rumbling of a jumbo jet?
  • Intensity of Reaction
    In general, how strongly does your child react to positive or negative experiences? Does a scraped knee send him into hysterics or does she tend to cry a bit, dust himself off and keep going?
  • Distractibility
    Is you child easily distracted by things going on around her or can she shut out intrusive stimuli and stay focused?
  • Attention Span and Persistence
    Can your child stick with a task or does he tend to give up or lose interest quickly? Does he have difficulty switching from one activity to another, or can he stop what he’s doing relatively easily?
  • Quality of Mood
    Is your child generally happy and even-tempered or does her mood seem to shift frequently?

From these nine traits, Thomas and Chess devised three categories, which they say describe approximately 65% of all children.

  • Easy or Flexible (40%): These kids are considered “easy going”. They demonstrate a steady, optimistic view of the world and are not deeply bothered by meeting new people or changes in their daily routine. Their bodily rhythms are largely predictable and they tend to not “overreact” to negative events or disruptive stimuli.
  • Active, Difficult, or Feisty (10%): Children in this category are frequently labeled “fussy” or “a handful.” They tend to have irregular feeding and sleeping patterns, are resistant to change and fearful of new people. They are quite sensitive to noise, light, and commotion and react intensely to things that disturb them.
  • Slow to Warm or Cautious:(15%): Dominant traits include relative inactivity, fussiness and fear of new people and situations. With gradual exposure, these children tend to warm up and become increasingly comfortable with the people and situations that caused them initial distress.

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