By Kimberly Eckert, M.Sc. & Karen Sabourin, M.A.
Have you ever wondered why the parenting strategies you use with your children work better with one child than the other? If you wish to unlock the mystery, read on!
What is Temperament?
When asked, most people can tell you ways in which they are similar to or different from other members in their family. They might say something like, “My sister is so social, yet I am so shy, it is amazing that we have the same parents!” Interestingly, if you were to ask the parents of these siblings about the statement above, they would tell you that they were able to identify signs of these differences as early as infancy.
These differences are referred to as a child’s temperament and represent the child’s natural style of interacting with or reacting to people, places and things. Temperament is like a blueprint for behaviour. Understanding the blueprint your child comes into the world with is important. It allows parents to shift from being confused by their child’s behaviour (Why is she so shy?) to thinking about what they can do to guide the child when she behaves the way she does (How can I help her understand her fear and work through it?). It is important to point out that temperament is a constraining force NOT a determining force. Experience still affects children in powerful ways – in other words, our temperament is not our destiny, but it is our first response to life’s experience unless we are taught another way of approaching the world around us.
The first longitudinal study by Thomas, Chess and Associates (1960) identified nine characteristics or traits. These characteristics are thought to be present at birth and influence a child’s development in important ways throughout life. Temperament is believed to be stable and differs from personality, which is a combination of temperament and life experience.
How Traits Cluster to Form Temperament Styles
The nine identifiable temperament characteristics can be combined to form three temperament styles; Easy/flexible, Difficult/active/feisty, and Slow to warm up/cautious. Research suggests that approximately 65% of all children fit into one of these three styles. The other 35% of children are a combination of these styles. It is important to say that none of these characteristics make the child good or bad, they simply describe the child’s response patterns.
The Feisty Child. Approximately 10 – 20% of children are born with Difficult/active/feisty temperaments. Traits for these children include: high activity levels; extra sensitive to sensory stimulation (e.g., sensitive to noise or touch); challenges with changes in routines and new experiences; intense reactions; rapid, intense mood swings resulting in acting out or withdrawing completely; difficulties calming themselves; distractibility or highly focused; and irregular biological rhythms (such as irregular hunger/sleep schedules).
None of these traits make life easy for kids or parents. But these children can learn to cope with their sensitivities. In fact, if they do not learn, they can become confused and frustrated and often have to endure constant negative feedback which creates a vicious cycle of discouragement for the child. Staying out of this cycle requires extra time, guidance and patience from parents. Using strategies and communication skills that work with rather than against the child’s temperament are an important first step. Once understood, feisty children can thrive and often show tremendous determination and perseverance.
The Slow to Warm Up Child. Approximately 15 - 20% of children are considered Slow to warm up/cautious. These children tend to be very sensitive to external stimulation. Research has shown that their brains actually take in more sensory information than most people, thus they are more prone to become overwhelmed or over-stimulated. These children are also very sensitive to their own emotions and the emotions of others. They feel things very intensely. With appropriate guidance they can become very compassionate and empathetic individuals.
Unfortunately these children are often labeled “shy,” “whiny,” “slow-poke,” or “scaredy-cat.” These labels have very unhelpful ideas behind them and make it difficult for the child to show others what he is truly capable of. Usually, Slow to warm up children are only tentative at first. Given enough time and support they are able to assess a situation’s safety. When they feel safe they will be as friendly and outgoing as the next child.
The Easy Child. Approximately 40% of children are regarded as Easy/Flexible. These children are generally calm and happy. They are relatively regular in their sleeping and eating habits, adapt fairly easily to new situations and are not easily upset. The challenge that parents of these children face is setting aside time to focus on and connect with them to find out how they are feeling. Because of their easy style, these children can be overlooked in a family, particularly if their siblings have a temperament which requires more of the parents’ time and attention.
Setting aside special time to talk with your Easy/Flexible child about his frustrations and hurts is important in order to build a strongly connected relationship. These children won’t necessarily demand or ask for this attention. Do not assume that everything is fine because your child is not making a fuss. Intentional communication on a regular basis will keep you connected with how your child is thinking and feeling.
Parenting with Your Child’s Temperament in Focus
Most parents can predict with good accuracy how their child will respond in specific situations. Where parents often get stuck is in feeling confused and frustrated by the child’s response. Without an awareness of temperament, parents often find themselves giving in to their own emotional response which leads them to fight with or give in to their child’s behaviour. An understanding of temperament allows the parent to understand the dynamic differently and depersonalize the child’s behaviour. This allows parents to manage their own feelings (staying calm and present to support their child), thus allowing for creation of a plan for guiding the child through a “big” emotion or “challenging” behaviour.
Becoming clear on your own temperament style is also a helpful step in supporting each of your children. When parent and child temperaments are similar, parents may have an easier time navigating the relationship because they interpret their child’s behaviour with greater accuracy. When temperaments are different, parents may need to spend more time understanding the situation from their child’s perspective – yet, this is time well spent. Taking our child’s perspective helps us focus our energy on our role as “teacher” or “coach” which increases our patience and builds our child’s confidence.
Thomas, A., Chess, S., Birch, H., and Hertzig, M. E. (1960). A longitudinal study of primary reaction patterns in children. Comprehensive Psychiatry 1, 103 – 112.
Kimberly is the Founder and Executive Director of Eckert Psychology & Education Centre. In her role as a Registered Psychologist, Kimberly provides assessment, family counselling, and parent education services at Eckert Centre. Kimberly makes a unique contribution to the Centre through her skills in parent-child attachment, her parent education seminars, including facilitation of our Club Mom groups, and her passion and expertise in working with families who have a child with special needs.
Karen Sabourin joined the Eckert Centre Counselling Team in March 2010. Karen’s focus is on the joys and challenges surrounding the transition to parenthood, and parent-child relationships. She makes a unique contribution to the Centre through her narrative approach to the issues her clients are struggling with.