Think of all the trees you see on an average day or week. Whether they are big or small, evergreen or deciduous, they all have one thing in common–roots. The roots are the foundational part of the tree. They provide stability and nourishment and largely determine how the tree grows.
Children’s temperament can be seen as their roots. Temperament is the set of innate characteristics that make a person who they are. Just as roots are foundational to a tree, temperament is foundational to children. It helps determine how they develop and how they are seen in the world.
If you’ve been around more than one child, you’ve seen this in action. Some children engage with the world immediately and without fear. They are the first ones to make friends on the playground or try a new activity. Other children approach the world with more caution. They watch first, then act. Just as we see all different types of trees in nature, so too do our children come into the world with a variety of temperaments. This variety of human nature makes our world beautiful and dynamic. As a parent, however, learning how to interact with your child’s unique temperament takes some time. However, learning about your child’s temperament can be very helpful in meeting their needs and supporting their development.
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What is Temperament?
Over the past few decades, temperament has been studied by psychologists in various ways. Most recently, temperament has been described as having 3 main dimensions: positive reactivity, negative reactivity, and attention/soothability/regulation. Each of these dimensions represents a continuum on which each child falls. For example, a child who is classified higher on the positive reactivity continuum is one who responds positively in many situations with actions such as smiling, laughing, or overall positive regard. A child who falls on the higher end of the negative reactivity continuum is one who is more likely to respond negatively to a situation with emotions like sadness, frustration, or anger. It’s important to point out that being high on one continuum does not preclude a child from being high on the other.
The dimension of attention, soothability, or regulation has to do with the child’s preference for activities and their self-regulation skills. Some children prefer quiet activities, others prefer more active pursuits. Additionally, some children find it easier to regulate their emotions, focus their attention, and concentrate than others.
Consider your own child. Do you have a sense of how they might be classified on these dimensions? Is your child prone to positive reactions, negative reactions, or both? Do they struggle with regulating their emotions or are they easy to soothe and find it easy to calm down when upset? Although most temperament assessments are designed for researchers, there are a few tools available to help parents gain a better understanding of their child’s temperament.
Children’s Temperament and Parenting
From these descriptions, we can already understand why temperament plays a large role in children’s development. From early in life, temperament influences how children approach the world. Perhaps more importantly, temperament also influences how individuals, including parents, react to children. Understanding that a child’s temperament is a two-way street is key. A child’s temperament not only affects how they interact with the world, but how the world (and the people in it) interacts with them.
For parents, understanding your child’s temperament is very helpful for several reasons. First, it helps us know how to interpret our child’s behavior. For example, imagine you are at a party and your child is meeting new people. Your child is quiet and doesn’t respond well to many party-goers’ questions. If you know your child’s temperament and that they are more likely to respond to new situations with negativity (or at least caution), we can understand this behavior as temperamentally-based, not them being intentionally rude or disrespectful. This interpretation completely changes how you might respond in this situation. Instead of punishing your child, you might instead try to support them in facing new situations with a bit more ease.
This example addresses another key point: there is no “right” or “wrong” temperament. Based on one’s cultural setting, some temperamental characteristics might be seen as more favorable than others. This favorability, however, is a cultural construct and not based on any developmental understanding of temperament. It is clear from research that when considering a child’s temperament, perception is everything. Studies show that parents who perceive their child’s temperament as “difficult” are more likely to experience higher levels of parenting stress. This stress, in turn, creates a cyclical pattern in which, due to the stress, they continue to view their child’s temperament in a negative light.
Understanding a child’s temperament involves largely accepting their unique characteristics as they are. Although we can support our children in learning to manage their emotions more effectively and adapt to situations well, it is unlikely that any parent would be able to completely change their child’s temperament. Accepting and working with your child’s temperament is one way we can support our child’s optimal development.
Finding the Right Fit for Your Child’s Temperament
In addition to helping us interpret our behavior, a child’s temperament can be key to understanding how their behavior elicits responses from other people. This can be especially helpful in educational settings. For example, if you know that your child has a temperament that is highly active, easily distracted, and less able to focus for long periods, this might elicit some negative feedback from teachers who prefer a classroom setting that involves a lot of seatwork and individual learning. In this case, you might find that the classroom does not provide a goodness-of-fit to match your child’s temperament.
Goodness-of-fit is a concept used by many scholars to explain the idea of a setting not “matching” with a child’s temperamental characteristics. As a parent, you can use this knowledge to potentially find a school setting that works better for your child’s temperament. If that is not possible, you can use the knowledge of your child’s temperament to work with the teacher to help better in meeting your child’s needs. Similarly, you can also work with your child’s temperament to help them gain the skills needed to work better in the classroom setting in which they find themselves. All in all, understanding your child’s temperament is a key piece of the puzzle in helping them thrive well in any situation.
Your Unique Child
Just as each tree in a forest has its own unique pattern and coloration based on its root system, each child has their own unique set of gifts and challenges based on their temperament. By paying close attention to each child’s “roots,” we can uncover more meaning for their behavior and how to respond to their needs more effectively. Instead of trying to turn our child into someone different, we can begin to see the beauty in their unique temperament and their place in the world.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice