As parents, we have a tendency to view our child’s moods and behaviour as a reflection of our parenting. When you see someone’s easy, outgoing child who is able to adapt to a sudden change in plans and you think, “Man, those parents are doing a great job.” Meanwhile, your child is quick to anger or frustration and needs everything done A Certain Way, and you wonder where you’ve gone wrong. The simple answer is: That’s just the temperament they were born with.
What is temperament?
A person’s temperament is their unique set of personality traits that informs how they react to the world around them and interact with others. Although it may be somewhat impacted by experiences in early childhood, for the most part, the temperament we are born with is the temperament we’ll have our whole lives.
You can already start to see indications of a child’s innate temperament even in infancy. Some babies will cry when they’re hungry; some will scream. Some will be all smiles nearly all the time; others are more serious. Your toddler might be trying to climb every structure of the playground practically before they can even walk; mine was the one who stood on the sidelines for the first half hour, trying to decide whether or not that shit was safe.
Although we can’t change our child’s temperament, per se, understanding it can help us adjust our own expectations and improve our interactions with them.
The nine main characteristics of temperament
Although there are three broad categories of temperament (easy, slow to warm up or shy, and difficult or challenging), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there are at least nine more specific characteristics to consider, and each child will have a different pattern of them. Here is how the AAP defines those characteristics:
- Activity level: the level of physical activity, motion, restlessness or fidgety behaviour that a child demonstrates in daily activities (and which also may affect sleep).
- Rhythmicity or regularity: the presence or absence of a regular pattern for basic physical functions such as appetite, sleep and bowel habits.
- Approach and withdrawal: the way a child initially responds to a new stimulus (rapid and bold or slow and hesitant), whether it be people, situations, places, foods, changes in routines or other transitions.
- Adaptability: the degree of ease or difficulty with which a child adjusts to change or a new situation, and how well the youngster can modify his reaction.
- Intensity: the energy level with which a child responds to a situation, whether positive or negative.
- Mood: the mood, positive or negative, or degree of pleasantness or unfriendliness in a child’s words and behaviours.
- Attention span: the ability to concentrate or stay with a task, with or without distraction.
- Distractibility: the ease with which a child can be distracted from a task by environmental (usually visual or auditory) stimuli.
- Sensory threshold: the amount of stimulation required for a child to respond. Some children respond to the slightest stimulation, and others require intense amounts.
Temperamental knowledge is power
Once you begin to consider each of those nine categories, a picture of your child’s temperament (and probably also your own) may begin to emerge. While we can’t force regularity in their physical functions, make them more able to adjust to new situations, or take away all of their unpleasantness, recognising that these are traits they were born with can help us better navigate certain situations. They can’t help it if they’re more moody or more easily distracted than the average kid; it’s just who they are.
This doesn’t give kids a hall pass to break rules, act unsafely, or treat others in an unkind way; but it’s helpful to acknowledge that being an easy-going, happy-go-lucky rule-follower comes easier to some kids than others. As you think about your own child’s temperament, ask yourself how intensely your child reacts to certain events, how well they deal with change, whether they have a strong pattern of regularity built into their day, how well they handle frustration, how well they’re able to remain on task, and what their general mood is like.
We can start to see patterns emerge as we connect a few dots. A child who is a “picky eater” and who also is very sensitive to the way clothing feels has a low sensory threshold, whereas their sister might eat whatever you put in front of her and wouldn’t even notice if she had her shoes on the wrong feet.
As the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group points out, although some temperamental traits are easier to live with than others, each has its own advantages and disadvantages:
For example, children who:
Are cautious in new situations may be frustrating to parents who become impatient, but this child can also be strong-willed and more self-aware.
Adapt quickly are often more flexible and easy to get along with, but they may be more easily swayed by peer pressure.
How to support your child
It’s important to think about how your own temperament might affect certain interactions or conflicts with your kids. Some temperaments mesh well, and some don’t. My son and I have a similar type of temperament, which I have found makes it easier for me to empathise with him in certain situations — but it also means our individual intensity can light the other’s on fire on (frequent) occasion. But understanding why and how that happens is half the battle in keeping that intensity in check.
Acknowledging your child’s individual temperament can also help you see the positive even in the traits that don’t look all that positive on the surface — and if you see the positive, they are more likely to see the positive, too. Sometimes all this takes is a simple reframing of the way you label them in your own head. They’re not stubborn; they’re tenacious. They’re not fidgety; they’re high-energy.
You can’t force your child to be someone they aren’t. You can’t trade their temperament or personality in for one that might be easier to parent. But you can meet them where they are, allow their personality to inform the way you parent them, and encourage them to try things that may be challenging for them, given their natural temperament. They may suddenly surprise you by being ready to try all kinds of new foods or finally feel comfortable sleeping over at a friend’s house. And you’ll know that even though it took them longer to get there than some of their peers, it’s a huge win for them.