Child Temperament: What it is and Why It’s Important to know

Some children are “easy.” They tend to be predictable, and calm and positively approach most new experiences. 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 its 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 an innate quality they are born with. It is modified 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 makeup 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.

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 shy, 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 positively and are mild 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 be 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 to 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 not a problem with temperament at all.

What temperament 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 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: that 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.

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