Understanding Your Child’s Temperament

written by Laurie Lafortune

I remember a friend telling me that if her third baby had been her first, she might not have had more than one child. That rueful statement was related to temperament of her third child, which was much more challenging than the calm, easy-going temperaments of the first two.  It can be a surprise to parents how different siblings can be in temperament.

For parents who are trying to use active parenting strategies to be the best parents they can, it’s crucial to understand your child’s temperament.  Temperament describes a child’s typical way of responding to the world. It appears that temperament is genetically based, but of course is then modified by the environment including the type of parenting.

Some kids are just naturally quiet, calm and more reserved while others are outgoing, talkative and loud. Some are generally easy-going, “go with the flow” types, while others of are strong-willed and resistant to change.  Children with temperaments that parents find challenging are often called “spirited” children. Children fall somewhere along a continuum with their individual traits. Taking some time to think about and understand the facets of a child’s temperament can be really helpful for parents. It will help a parent to anticipate reactions, avoid conflicts, and help a child with his own self-control. There is no temperament that is better than another; what really matters is being aware of how your child’s temperament fits your home environment and how it matches up with your own temperament as an adult.  If you and your child have very different temperaments, it can be challenging to keep things on an even keel. You might not realize how difficult certain situations can be for your child.

Here’s an example. Many children have trouble with new situations. If you as a parent are very adaptable, jumping right into new situations and challenges, it might be difficult to understand why your child holds back from a fun activity, doesn’t want to try new things, and may refuse to do something, despite your reassurances and observing that other kids are doing it. So as a parent, you have some choices; you can plead, argue, reason, or even insist that your child participate, or you can realize that the situation looks very different to him than it does to you and let your child decide when he is ready. I remember seeing a parent lift her young daughter up on a pony, despite the child’s insistence that she didn’t want to. The parent knew there was no danger from the gentle pony, all the other preschoolers had taken a turn, but for the child, this was a scary, unpleasant and stressful experience. Not surprisingly, the little girl began to cry and fuss.

One of the key factors in children’s temperament is intensity. This is how strong your child’s emotional reactions are, how easily he becomes frustrated, and how strongly he reacts. A child with high intensity would get frustrated easily, and have strong emotional responses. Parents may find themselves puzzled and frustrated when their child reacts strongly, thinking “it’s not a big deal.” Knowing that your child is of high intensity will help parents anticipate and modify situations that will be a challenge for their child.

Another factor is called sensitivity. Some children are very aware of noise, smells, taste, temperature and texture.  Children who are highly sensitive may be unable to stand scratchy clothes, refuse to wear a certain pair of shoes, complain of smells, or be unable to eat food with a certain texture.  If you are a parent who is basically oblivious to these, with your temperament being one of low sensitivity to noise, smell, and textures, then you might find think your child is just being “picky”. Or you might think your child is being deliberately difficult.  Instead, try to understand and empathize with your sensitive child.

For more insights into temperament and strategies for parents, you can read Michael H. Popkin’s book Taming the Spirited Child – Strategies for parenting Challenging Children without Breaking Their Spirits. Another book many parents find useful for understanding temperament is Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child.