Understanding Temperament

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Anyone with more than one child can tell you that children can be very different, even given the same home environment and same parents. We do all have different ways of reacting and responding to the world around us. Therefore, in our workshops, we spend a lot of time talking about temperament. Temperament is best understood as our natural or innate style of interacting with or reacting to people, places and things. Psychologists have found that termperament remains relatively stable throughout our lives, and evidence of key temperament traits can be seen even in young children. Understanding temperament can go a long way in helping parents and caregiver respond to children’s behaviour.

Research has found that there are a nine personality traits that define our temperament:

1) activity – how much/often we move around

2) rythmicity – how regular or routine we are in our daily habits, such as eating and sleeping

3) approach/withdrawl – our comfort level with new people or social situations

4) adaptability – how well we cope with transitions, new situations, or changes in routine

5) intensity – how strongly (positively or negatively) we react to situations

6) mood – how prone we are to negativity or optisimistic thinking and/or how often we change moods

7) persistance and attention span – how long we are able to continue attempting a new task without giving up; how long we are able to stay focused on a task or activity

8) distractability – how easily we are able to shut out external distractions

9) sensory threshold – how sensitive we are to physical stimuli like loud noises, food texture, temperature, tight clothing, etc.

There are many different terms used to categorize temperament; in general, psychologists tend to talk about three different temperament types: Easy or flexible; active, intense or high-spirited; and slow to warm or cautious. There are a number of quizzes you can take for yourself and/or your child to see where you and they fall. Here is an example of an online quiz intended to capture your child’s temperament type. Once you finish the quiz, the website offers suggestions on how to work with your child on key areas of development.

While it is certainly important to be aware of the fact that there are different personality types and that this shapes how we and our kids respond to the world and each other, caution should be applied when trying to fit children into a certain temperament ‘box’. While researchers have found that approximately 65 percent of kids fit into one of the three main temperament types, that leaves 35 percent who cannot be so easily categorized. Parenting ‘experts’ make a great deal of money by creating categories for children and then selling books and DVDs that teach parents how to ‘handle’ that type of child. There is a danger in labels, however, particularly when they have a negative connotation. For example the term ‘high-spirited’ has become somewhat of a euphemism for ‘difficult’. When we start thinking and talking about our child as ‘difficult’, ‘slow to warm’, ‘shy’, ‘intense’ or even ‘easy’, it can shape how we and others respond to all their behaviour.With a child coming into kindergarten, for example, if a parent has described her or him to the teacher as ‘high sprited’ or ‘intense’ the teacher is more likely to see typically active behaviour as proof of a child who might disrupt class.  When discussing your child and their temperamental traits, it is best to focus on neutral descriptions of behaviour rather than applying labels to them as people. For example, instead of telling new people you meet that your child is “shy,” it is best to just let them know that your child usually likes a few minutes to get used to new people or new places. Rather than describing your child as “intense,” you can talk about how they tend to have really big feelings. It is also important to remember that there are strengths in all temperament types. Many people who have ‘difficult’ personalities do extremely well in life.

Finally, one of the most important things to remember is that while there are certainly different personality traits that shape how children interact with the world, the way we define our children’s temperament – whether we find them ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ – is as much about us as them. For a very extroverted parent who loves socializing and finds themselves immediately at ease with new people, any child who shows a developmentally-appropriate hesitance to new situations might seem ‘slow to warm’. Likewise, for most new parents, especially those who are used to peace and quiet, the typical exuberance and level of emotion most toddlers and preschoolers show can be mistaken for the traits of a ‘high spirited’ or ‘intense’ child. One of the key challenges in parenting can be when you find yourself and your child at odds on a given personality trait. Learning about temperament can help you build empathy towards your child and put you in a better place for developing strategies for dealing with those differences.