Have you ever wondered what it is that makes two children react so differently to the same set of circumstances – even when those children seem to share much in common with one another? That question can be a puzzling one for many parents and educators as they strive to develop the right approach for dealing with each unique child in their lives. Often times, adults attribute these differences to disparate personality types, but that doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. These differences are actually the result not only of variations in personality, but in temperament. And understanding a child’s unique temperament can be an essential component of any strategy for assisting in his or her development.
So, what is temperament? Primarily, it is the biological component of personality that informs emotional reactivity. Temperament is the way in which each person reacts to his or her world. As such, it helps to influence behavior. A better understanding of temperament and its impact on each child’s functioning can help parents and educators to more effectively develop strategies that promote healthy development.
There are three main types of temperament. Almost two-thirds of all children can be described as falling fairly neatly into one of these three categories, with the other third demonstrating mixed traits:
- Easy and flexible. These kids generally seem happy and flexible when it comes to dealing with their external environment. They have sound eating and sleeping habits, and are fairly moderate in their emotional reactions.
- Cautious or slow to warm up to new people and situation. While not as open as the flexible children, these kids can generally overcome their initial tendency to remain withdrawn if they are given enough time to become accustomed to new people and situations.
- Active and intense. These are children that are often thought of as “difficult” due to their intense negative reactions in new situations. They are often fussy, and tend to have poor sleeping routines and appetites.
Some researchers have determined that a child’s temperament, as well as the intensity of that reactivity, can be better understood by assessing nine specific dimensions of emotional response: activity level, rhythmicity, approachability, adaptability, response intensity, basic mood, persistence, distractibility, and sensory threshold (Chess & Thomas). Adults who take the time and effort to discover a child’s temperament can learn to better understand the way in which it impacts that child’s behavior. That can lead to more effective parenting and teaching, as interactions with the child are tailored to meet specific temperament needs.
For example, the flexible child may require more emotional attention and validation, since he or she is less likely to be as demanding as a more active child might be. That active child often requires more flexibility from adults, as well as greater patience and an attempt to deal with intense emotions in a more positive way. For the cautious child, time and patience are essential to ensure that he or she has the structure and predictability needed to become comfortable with changes to the status quo.
Parents may be struggling to figure out what makes their children “tick”, or having difficulties dealing with complex temperaments. Jennifer Hope, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Brooklyn who can offer the type of psychological testing that can help to provide the answers they need. Those answers can help to ensure that temperament is addressed in a way that promotes positive developmental gains, so that each child’s growth is properly nurtured.