Some children are "easy." They tend to be predictable, calm and approach most new experiences in a positive way. Other children have more challenging traits. They often have a harder time managing and expressing their emotions.
Of course, no child is one way all the time. But, in general, each has their own usual type. Read on to learn more, and why it's important to understand your child's temperament.
What is temperament?
Temperament is a term that describes a child's emotional style and how easily they adapt to situations.
For the most part, temperament is a innate quality they are born with. It is modified some by their experiences and interactions with other people. Their environment and their health also can influence a child's temperament.
Understanding temperament traits
By being aware of some of the characteristics of temperament, you can better understand your child and appreciate their uniqueness. It can also help deal with a different temperament "fit" and avoid misunderstandings and conflicts.
There are at least 9 major characteristics that make up temperament.
Activity level: the level of physical activity, motion, restlessness or fidgety behavior that a child shows 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 first responds to a new stimulus (rapid and bold or slow and hesitant). This can be to people, situations, places, foods, changes in routines or other transitions.
Adaptability: how easily a child adjusts to change or a new situation, and how well they can modify their reaction.
Intensity: the energy level with which a child responds to a situation, whether positive or negative.
Mood: how positive or negative a child's words and behaviors tend to be.
Attention span: the ability to concentrate or stay with a task, with or without distraction.
Distractibility: how readily a child can be distracted from a task by what's going on in their environment (such as sights and sounds).
Sensory threshold: the amount of stimulation required for a child to respond. Some children respond to the slightest stimulation, and others require intense amounts.
Tips for parents
High activity level
Energetic. Explores their environment. Active even in boring situations.
Restless. May be impulsive, reckless. Easily distracted.
As with all children, provide a safe environment. Use distraction techniques. Provide time to "burn off" energy with physical activity.
Low activity level
Unlikely to disrupt activities.
Slow pace in completing tasks. Sometimes labeled "lazy."
Give extra time to finish tasks. Make them realistic within a given time frame. Avoid criticism of child's slow pace.
Irregular activity level
May not be upset by disruptions in daily routines.
Less predictable patterns of eating, sleeping, using the toilet.
Require child to follow routines of coming to the table or going to bed, but don't force them to eat or sleep.
Shows caution in risky situations.
Slow to accept change. May reject people, food and new situations. Can be very shy and have separation anxiety.
Introduce new things gradually. Talk about change beforehand. Let the child go at their own pace.
Less likely to be affected by negative influences.
Difficulty with changes and transitions. Takes a long time to adapt and adjust.
Set consistent, predictable daily routines. Prepare child for change in advance. Try multiple brief exposures.
The child's needs get the attention of caregivers.
Tends to express emotions in extremes. May tend to yell rather than talk.
Give general feedback, practice tolerance and model more appropriate responses.
Concern may get parents involved in issues affecting the child.
Fussy and tends to complain. May show little pleasure in words and actions.
Adjust demands that intensify mood. Encourage positive responses.
Inattention & distractibility
Can be soothed easily.
Tends not to listen. Has more difficulty concentrating and studying. Gets off track easily.
Give short, simple instructions. Address child by name, use eye contact. Repeat, clarify and review. Redirect without anger or shame. Give breaks, reminders and praise for completing tasks.
Low sensitivity threshold
Highly aware of changes in surroundings and the feelings of others.
May overreact to normal stimuli (light, noise, smells, textures, pain, emotional events).
Reduce stimulation levels. Anticipate problems and prepare child. Respect their preferences when possible.
How temperament can affect children and their parents
Every child has a different pattern of the nine temperament traits listed above. Many, but not all, children tend to fall into one of three broad and somewhat loosely defined categories: easy, slow to warm up or shy, or difficult or challenging. These loose labels are a useful shorthand, but none offers a complete picture of a child.
The "easy" child
About 40% of children fall into the "easy" category. They tend to respond to the world in a positive manner, and are mildly to moderately intense. They adapt easily to new schools and people. When encountering a frustrating situation, they usually do so with relatively little anxiety.
The slow-to-warm-up, hesitant or shy child
These children tend to have moods of mild intensity, usually, but not always, negative. They adapt slowly to unfamiliar surroundings and people. They are often hesitant and shy when making new friends, and tend to withdraw when first meeting new people and circumstances. They typically become more accepting of new people and situations once they become more familiar.
The "challenging" child
They may have been categorized as a fussy baby. As a young child they may have hard to please or prone to temper tantrums. They may still occasionally be explosive, stubborn and intense, and may adapt poorly to new situations.
Some children with more challenging temperaments may have trouble adjusting at school. Teachers may complain of problems in class or on the playground. When kids have conflict-prone temperaments, they typically have more behavioral problems.
Note: Your pediatrician can help you distinguish a challenging temperament from other problems. For instance, recurrent or chronic illnesses, or emotional and physical stresses, can cause behavioral difficulties that are really not a problem with temperament at all.
What temperment can teach you
It helps to realize that your child's behavior is, to some extent, an innate pattern beyond their control. This can make it easier to become more patient and lower the stress and strain your child feels.
Regardless of your child's individual temperament or "thermostat," you can help foster healthy behavioral development. Use teachable moments and model appropriate behavior in difficult or unexpected situations. If you have a flat tire or the pot on the stove boils over, be aware that your child is watching how you handle the situation. Remember that children learn from what we do as much as from what we say.
If your young child has a challenging temperament, for example, keep in mind: if you understand and respond appropriately, they may modify their behavior. As they get a little older, their intensity can become part of their enthusiasm, determination, charm and zeal.