Understanding Your Child’s Temperament

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Parents recognize soon after their baby is born that she possesses certain characteristics or traits. Within weeks, they may begin describing her as being easy, difficult, fussy or engaging. Although others may judge parents for these early descriptions, they are probably quite accurate. The baby is responding to her environment with hard-wired responses called temperament.

Becky Huskey, Tehama County teacher and parent of adult children, says, “When my twins were born, they were as different as could be. I couldn’t believe that newborns already had a personality.” Women who have had more than one pregnancy say that they can tell the difference from baby to baby while they are in the womb. Temperament is already manifesting.

Temperament is defined as the inborn traits of an individual that have a genetic/biological basis. It is relatively stable from birth through a person’s life. A child’s unique personality is developed through the interaction of her temperament with the people and situations in her environment. This hard-wiring determines how she learns about her world and those who are in it.  And it plays a role in the way others respond to her.

art-415-temp1From Greek antiquity, psychology has developed classifications of temperament. Perhaps the easiest for parents to grasp is that of extroversion/introversion. Extroversion refers to how outgoing and active a person is and introversion to how reserved or even shy she may be. Degrees of extraversion and introversion range on a scale from high to low.

At the higher end of the extroversion scale, outgoing children tend to take more risks, may exhibit more tantrum behaviors, and don’t hesitate to engage in power struggles. Highly introverted children are often shy, anxious, and avoid new situations. They may have a difficult time interacting with their peers.

Although these traits themselves are neither good nor bad, how others respond to the child can determine whether she perceives herself as being good or bad. If a child’s temperament is different from that of her parents or other family members, a parent may have a hard time responding to the child’s behavior in a compassionate way.

Robin See-Swenson, Mt. Shasta marriage and family therapist says, “Behavioral adjustments of a child depend on the interactions of her temperament and the caregivers’ responses. Treating a child harshly can exacerbate an existing problem or create new ones.”

“Parents make a mistake when they put their expectations on children. They need to love and celebrate them as they are,” advises Redding psychologist Dr. Doug Craig.

Basic temperaments are modified through maturation and environmental factors. Effective parenting strategies are fundamental in assisting both highly introverted and extroverted children in having more successful personal relationships and greater success in the family and at school.

The strategies of clearly stating behavioral boundaries, using consistency, and following though with stated consequences assist all children. “You don’t want to use a cookie cutter approach to parenting,” says Craig. “Neither do you want your kids to run amok.” He suggests that parents observe their children and learn to talk with them to discover what they want, then make every effort to use their skills to flow with the child. “It’s important to respect the child and have empathy with her view of the world,” he says.

Dr. Liliana Lengua, an internationally renowned expert on how temperament contributes to children’s unique responses to their environment and to stress, uses a technique she calls “scaffolding.” When a child is successful, parents need to step back and let her succeed in her own way. When she has difficulties, say with a task like homework, step in with structure and guidance. Then step back again, and let her begin to regulate her own thoughts, emotions and behaviors. This is not a one-time fix but will need to be done over and over again in the child’s life.

See-Swenson builds on this theme, saying, “When caregivers are sensitive and model and teach calming reactions to their children, the children can learn to self-regulate and modify their temperaments.”

Effective parenting takes time and can be challenging. It can seem especially daunting when one of the children in the family doesn’t fit an expected mold. The following three strategies can help parents navigate toward warm, nurturing relationships with the most difficult of children:

Carefully observe your child to learn what she is asking for through her behaviors. Recognize early clues so that upsets can be avoided.

Learn to flow with your child so that you can remain calm. Your calmness helps her recognize that you can help her maintain or regain control of herself.

Take advantage of information given by your child’s pediatrician, publications like North State Parent, and other reliable sources. When you are informed, you feel confident and can control your own responses in difficult situations.

Above all, develop respect for yourself and your children. Learn to understand the world views you each live with even though they may not be the same. And find ways each day to enjoy your children.  

Nine Traits of Temperament

Source: http://www.healthychild.org 

  • Activity level: the level of physical activity, motion, restlessness or fidgety behavior 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 behaviors.
  • 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.
Carolyn Warnemuende
About Carolyn Warnemuende

Author Carolyn Warnemuende has two daughters and five grandchildren, and lives with her husband in Redding. She writes parenting and educational articles, sponsors a school in Uganda, and visits Africa twice a year. She receives great joy in taking daily care of her four-year-old granddaughter who was adopted from Ethiopia.

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