Prior to the 1970s most psychologists believed that babies came into the world essentially as a blank slate; meaning they had no innate preferences or behaviors and that everything had to be learned. Today we know this is not the case. Thanks to the research done over the last 30 years we now know that children come into the world with their own unique temperament.
Temperament is defined as an infant’s or child’s behavioral style or way of reacting to their environment. Some babies smile often, are open to new stimuli, and have regular patterns of eating and sleeping. Others cry often, are shy, and are irregular in their eating and sleeping patterns.
Child psychologists recognize three basic temperament types in infants and young children:
- Easy temperament
40% of children display this type of temperament. These children are primarily positive in their mood and flexible when confronted with new situations. There are not overly emotional. They adapt easily to change and develop regular patterns of eating and sleeping. (sometimes referred to as flexible temperament)
- Difficult temperament
10% of babies have this type of temperament. These children are easily frustrated; they withdraw from new situations, and are slow to adapt to change. They are highly emotional and intense. They have irregular eating and sleeping patterns. (sometimes referred to as feisty temperament)
- Slow to warm up temperament
15% of babies display this temperament. These children are mildly negative to new situations but will gradually develop interest with repeated exposure. These children are less emotional than those with difficult temperament are and have more regular eating and sleep schedules. (sometimes referred to as fearful temperament)
Interestingly 35% of children do not fall neatly into any of these categories. They have a unique combination of behavioral tendencies that preclude them from being easily labeled.
But where does temperament come from? It is believed that as much as 70% of a child’s temperament is genetic, meaning it is passed down from the mother and father. The remainder is a result of the child’s environment. Therefore, the way in which a child is cared for and attended to will also shape his temperament. Are the parents warm and supportive towards the child or are they harsh and disinterested? As so often is the case it is a combination of nature and nurture at work.
In 1977, Drs. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess developed the elements that go into determining a child’s temperament. Based on extensive interviews conducted with parents they were able to come up with nine dimensions that make up a child’s temperament.
- Activity Level How active is the infant.
- Biological Rhythms How predictable and regular are the child’s schedule.
- Approach/Withdrawal How positive or negative is the child’s reaction when presented with something new.
- Adaptability How does the infant adapt to change.
- Mood How pleasant is the infant.
- Intensity How intense or energetic is the infant.
- Sensitivity The level of change that is needed to cause a change in behavior.
- Distractibility How distracted is the child by his environment.
- Persistence How long does the infant continue activities despite obstacles.
For each of the nine dimensions a child can receive a high, low, or medium score. These scores are then totaled to determine the child's overall temperament type.
"It is important to note that parents, like children, also differ in temperament. Some are quick-reacting and intense, while others are quiet and slow to respond; some are flexible and adaptable, and others are not. The “mix” between parents and infants’ temperaments has a strong effect on family life, sometimes leading to positive interactions, sometimes to frustrations and sometimes even to conflicts." Holly Brophy-Herb, Ph.D.
Although temperament does not change much over time, the manner in which the child expresses their temperament does change. As a child matures and develops insight into his behavior, he will likely make adjustments depending on the environment and the situation.
This nine-question assessment will help you discover what type of temperament your child has and how you can support his or her temperament. When you’re done, you’ll get a report summarizing your child's temperament traits, along with tips for working with your child's temperament. You will be able to print out this report for future reference.
Source material: Chess & Thomas, 1970, Foreman, 1995, Wikipedia, Keogh, B.K 2003