Let's talk about temperament
or, understanding how inborn traits explain the "how" and "why" of behavior
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What is Temperament and Why is it Important?
Why is it that one sibling is relatively predictable, adaptable, and easy-going while another one seems more anxious, moody, or hesitant? After all, they share similar DNA, were raised by the same parents, and had relatively similar early childhood experiences.
The answer is temperament. Temperament refers to the constellation of inborn, physiologically-based traits that determine differences in reactivity and self-regulation. It is a foundational component of personality and is often described as the “why” and “how” of human behavior. Decades of research tells us that a child’s temperamental traits appear early in life, are influenced by genetics, and remain relatively stable over time.
Understanding your child’s temperament can give you a better sense of what to expect from him, as well as insight into which parenting and discipline strategies may be most effective. Taking time to understand how your own temperament aligns with or diverges from your child’s can help you modulate your parenting approach to support your child’s strengths and address his unique needs.
Nine Temperament Traits
“If a person’s life is a symphony, then his or her temperament is the main key of that piece of music. This key, whether F major or A minor, does not restrict the endless possibilities that can arise in the symphony but it is always there, influencing the tone of the music throughout the piece.” -David Rettew, M.D.
The most commonly used framework for understanding temperament was developed in the 1960s by researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, who identified nine traits that composed temperament. Read through each of them below and get a make a note of where each of your children fall along the continuum. Then, make a note of where you and your partner fall on the continuum.
Activity: The level of physical activity or motion a child requires.
Rhythmicity: The degree to which there is a regularity to basic physical functions including sleeping, eating, and elimination.
Approach and Withdrawal: A child’s response to novel situations or people.
Adaptability: The degree to which a child can demonstrate flexibility in response to change.
Sensitivity: The degree of reactivity to different sensory stimuli.
Intensity of Reaction: Strength of a child’s emotional reactions.
Quality of Mood: A child’s baseline emotional state.
Distractibility: The degree to which external stimuli and distractions can impact a child’s concentration.
Attention Span and Persistence: The amount of time a child devotes to an activity and the degree to which distractions affect her attention to the activity.
Goodness of Fit
“Goodness of fit” refers to the degree of compatibility between a child’s temperament and her surroundings. For example, a noisy bounce house would be a better fit for an open and highly energetic child than it would for a hesitant, reactive child. Similarly, adjusting to the regimented structure of a school day will be easier for a highly rhythmic kid as opposed to one who is more irregular.
This same principle applies to relationships, including the parenting relationship. When temperaments are similar, there can be increased compatibility and understanding. For example, a parent and child who are both open to new activities, will likely have a lot of fun together exploring new adventures. When temperaments are very different, connection and empathy may take more work. A very focused parent might find parenting a highly distractible child to be incredibly frustrating. A highly sensitive parent will find an energetic child to be overwhelming.
Temperament-Based Parenting Strategies
Some parent-child dyads are inherently more compatible, but the good news is that “goodness of fit” can be cultivated using the strategies below:
Accept your child for who she is. It’s not possible to change your kid’s temperament, so any attempt to do so will likely only result in her feeling ashamed or resentful.
Avoid comparisons between siblings or friends. See above. Comparisons not only negatively impact your relationship with your kids, but they damage the sibling relationship too.
Parent the child you have, not the child you thought you’d have. You may have envisioned summers filled with trips to the baseball stadium and amusement park, but if you have a highly sensitive kid who is easily overwhelmed by noise, smells, crowds, and heat, these trips aren’t likely to be very successful. Perhaps start by watching the game on TV or attending a minor league game, and slowly build to more sensory-intensive events.
Anticipate your child’s needs and responses. When it comes to meltdowns and other undesirable behavior, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To the extent possible, use what you know about your child’s temperament to anticipate and defuse potentially triggering situations. For example, giving your child who struggles with transitions plenty of advance notice before leaving the playground may help you avoid a full-on tantrum. Similarly, you’ll be setting a highly regular kid up for success if you adhere to a predictable schedule.
Tailor your discipline approach to your child’s temperament. Empathy and clear limits go a long way in guiding behavior. When discipline is necessary, experiment with what is most effective for your child. Kids who are highly sensitive, struggle with transition, or are generally “slow to warm” may benefit most from reward-based motivation while highly active, reactive, or “defiant” kids may respond best to ignoring bad behavior or a loss of privileges. Regardless of the kid, choose your battles wisely and avoid power struggles.
Model the behavior you want to see. Self-regulation is the magical elixir of parenthood. When we lose our sh*t, everything else falls apart. Take a deep breath and model the skills you’re tying to encourage.
Applying Temperament to Work Situations
Although we mostly talk about temperament in terms of kids’ behavior and parenting, we know that these nine traits stay relatively stable into adulthood. Take a moment to reflect on the colleagues whose behavior you find most annoying. Is there a trait-based discrepancy at the root of it? Maybe you can’t stand Jenn because she’s a “drama queen”. Would you feel more empathy for her if you view her as “highly reactive” instead? Does the fact that you’re less emotionally reactive help explain why her behavior is so disagreeable to you?
Consider the temperaments of the people who report to you. If you better understood their key traits, my guess is that you would be more effective at supervising them. If you knew you had several people on your team who found change to be distressing and disruptive, you would probably spend more time explaining and processing a change in protocol. You might take greater care in giving feedback to a highly sensitive direct report, since you know that he is likely to internalize any critique.
Finally, spend some time reflecting on how your own temperament traits. Which settings and relationships seem to be a particularly good fit for you? Which settings and relationship take more effort? What adjustments can you make to ensure a better fit?
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