About Temperament

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Over the past decade, parents have asked us many questions about temperament.
Those most frequently asked are answered below.

What is temperament?
In the same situation, one child may react intensely while the next is quiet. One may be shy, another bold. Rooted largely in the individual’s physical constitution, temperament is reflected in the consistency of an individual’s reactions across similar situations.

Temperament is different from personality. Personality reflects motivations, interests, drives. Temperament and personality are related, however. A child’s temperament may shape certain aspects of personality. The sensitive child who withdraws from the chaos of life may later develop a love of solitary walks, quiet countrysides, reflective reading.

Temperament also differs from ability. Two children of the same age may be equally active. One may be able to express that energy through a variety of skills, learning to play tennis, basketball, skiing, etc. The other may be able to express the same energy level only through running.

For a description of the different concepts used to describe temperament, see the question: What are the major areas of temperament? [/p]

Why is temperament important?
Parents, teachers, doctors, employers, researchers can all profit from understanding temperament. So too, of course, can children.

Parents who understand their child’s temperament can avoid blaming themselves for issues that are normal for their child’s temperament. They can anticipate issues before they occur and avoid getting stuck in parenting approaches that work for other children, but not this one.

For preschool teachers, understanding children’s temperament is almost a survival skill (know the biters!). Like parents, they can identify issues likely to arise: separation problems at the preschool door, the length of time a new child needs to “warm up” on entry. In the primary grades, teachers can better manage the class clown, the insistent talker, the reluctant participant.

For doctors, understanding a child’s temperament helps gauge how compliant a child will be in taking prescribed medicine. Knowledge of a child’s energy level can suggest how long a cast will last on a broken leg .. or whether the child is likely to show up again soon in the emergency room!

For employers, temperament concepts have been used to see how well an applicant fits the characteristics of a particular job. For years during the cold war, Russia employed a renowned Polish researcher in adult temperament to help choose the cosmonauts whose temperament “fit” cramped quarters and long periods of monotonous isolation. No one will ever see a hyperactive Russian astronaut!

For researchers, temperament was initially seen as a source of “noise” in their experiments. Pure strains of laboratory animals were bred to minimize genetically-linked individual differences, like temperament. Gradually, as researchers began to see the importance of temperament as a causal factor in their area of study, temperament became more a focus of their attention. Example: the type “A” temperament in heart attack risk.

Finally, for children directly:

Some child developmentalists claim that for children, being seen and understood is a form of validation that is just as important as being loved. The child not seen can feel “looked through”, like a pane of glass. In contrast, parents who can understand and manage their child’s temperament act as role models for their child. By word and deed, they mirror back to their child an acceptance and understanding of their child’s temperament… the preconditions for a child to learn to manage his or her own temperament.

Where did concepts of temperament originate?
Almost since writing began, authors have been aware of the reality and importance of temperamental differences, portraying their characters with different “temperaments”.

How we explain temperament has a shorter history.

We trace the formal study of temperament back to early medieval physiology, which in turn employed concepts from Greek philosophy. A person’s temperament was presumed to depend on the proportion of four bodily fluids (humor) present in the system: blood (cheerfulness), phlegm (sluggishness or apathy), black bile (gloominess) and yellow bile (anger).

Later in the middle ages, explanations of temperament took a more judgmental, religious turn. The depressed, angry, “bilious” child was more likely to be seen as wicked or “possessed”.

But by the 17th century, individual differences had lost their innate nature. The empiricism of John Locke emphasized the role of the environment, of sensory experiences. The baby’s mind was believed to be a ‘tabula raza’ (blank slate). People who reacted differently in the same situation did so because different experiences during their lifetimes taught them to see that situation differently.

Invoking external forces to explain temperament differences continued into the 19th Century. Freud’s physiological training helped him to conclude that constitutional differences played some role, but psychoanalytic theory primarily attributed individual differences in behavior to drives or unconscious motivations.

In the early 20th century, behaviorism continued this emphasis on external forces. Behavior was primarily learned, not innate. Positive or negative reinforcement schedules were the method of transmission. Slowly, though, a variety of events changed this perception. Scientists studying animal behavior found temperament hard to ignore, particularly when confronted with the variety of behavioral styles that remained stable across generations of laboratory animals. And clinicians found that “difficult” children often came from “good” families or (even harder to explain) apparently well-adjusted children often arose out of the most chaotic, tortuous conditions.

Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas are the clinicians- researchers who, through their New York Longitudinal Study, deserve the credit for finally turning the light back onto temperament in child psychiatry and psychology. Starting in the 1950s, their study of 131 children from birth into their thirties confirmed the importance of early temperament differences particularly in the way those differences matched up with or “fit” the child’s environment. Today, due primarily to their efforts, there is no longer a question whether temperament concepts are relevant.

What are the major areas of temperament?
From our work in health maintenance organizations, we see three major areas of temperament. In our research and clinical work, they reappear from infancy through adolescence and contribute to the majority of temperament-related behavioral issues bothering parents. These areas are the child’s energy level (both activity and reactivity), adaptability (to intrusions, transitions, changes, or novelties) and frustration tolerance.

Three secondary (but still important areas) are the child sensitivity, regularity in sleep and eating schedules, and distractibility (or in infancy, soothability).

Other clinicians and researchers with different purposes have developed different concepts. There is no standard set.

To map temperament, university researchers typically have started with large sets of specific questions about temperament. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, they have combined specific questions and concepts into smaller sets of more abstract temperament factors, such as “Energy” or “Emotionality”.

Clinicians generally have taken a different path, preferring to stay with a smaller number of specific concepts, particularly those that have proved helpful to parents in explaining how their child’s temperament “worked”.

In constructing this website, since our goal was to explain to parents how their child’s temperament worked and predict what short-term issues were likely to occur, we tried to combine helpful elements of both approaches.

For example, our infant profile shows a child’s standing on seven global dimensions of temperament. However, we found that if we divided major areas of temperament (such as Reactivity or Adaptability) into clinical sub-areas, we could explain more clearly to parents why their child’s temperament led to specific problems. We also could improve our capacity to predict problem occurrence.

Our research studies also confirmed what other researchers have reported: the structure of temperament seems to change over time. The concepts that apply or are predictive at one age may not at another. So our toddler temperament profile will have somewhat different scales than our infant profile.

How early in life does temperament appear?
Maternity room nurses say they can identify the “loud, intense squawkers” from the first day. But not all elements of temperament show up at once.

For example, “persistence” is difficult to see until a child begins to develop skills (rolling over, sitting up, crawling, etc.). Only then are parents likely to notice how diligently the child practices each skill.

Children have to teach their temperament to their parents. So it takes time for parents to learn their child’s temperament. The image emerges slowly over time, like a photographic negative in the developer tray. At birth, the image can be clouded by prematurity, birth hormones, the after-effects of a difficult birth, unfinished neurological development, or colic. For this reason, we recommend parents wait until 4-6 months to complete the child’s first temperament questionnaire.

Are temperament traits good or bad?
On the temperament profile created by scoring the temperament questionnaire, above average scores (to the right of center) are likely to be associated with more issues that parents find problematic. But high and low scores in each temperament area are also associated with certain advantages. These advantages need mentioning, simply because parents are more likely to be impressed by the pitfalls.

For example:

  • Artistic talents may arise out of the heightened awareness of the more sensitive child.
  • The active child may be able to channel that extra energy into success in sports.
  • Intense children are less likely to be ignored. (On medical wards, they get more pain medication!)
  • The child who adapts more slowly to novelty may hold back, rather than rush into dangerous situations. Or the child who adapts slowly to parents’ expectations may be less influenced by adolescent peer pressure.
  • The child who is irregular in eating and sleeping schedules may fit better into jobs where workers only can eat and sleep as the work situation allows.
  • Easily frustrated children may learn early how useful other people can be when obstacles or delays occur. So they may be more motivated to be sociable, develop stronger social skills.
  • The child who is not particularly distractible… and therefore hard to distract when upset or move on to a different activity when “into something”… may have no difficulty studying on the school bus, lunch cafeteria, or on the noisy playground.
Can't labels be a problem?
Occasionally, parents voice fears that seeing their child’s temperament will open a Pandora’s box. Out will fly a variety of ills, including:

  • Demeaning labels. Parents ask: Won’t labels like “difficult”, “slow to warm up”, or “hyperactive” stick to my child, create prejudices, lower self-esteem? These side effects can occur occasionally when children are lumped into temperament types. Partly for this reason, we do not group children into typologies on this website.
  • Self-fulfilling prophesies. “If I’m told my child will act a certain way, won’t my expectations force my child to act just that way?” This fear might be justified if temperament concepts led to negative judgments of the child (“if my parents see me as bad, I might as well act that way”). But parents tell us this program does just the opposite. By expanding their definition of what is normal, the programs makes them feel less anxious or guilty, less likely to feel their child is damaged or “bad”.
  • Catering to the child. “If I acknowledge temperamental differences, won’t I have to submit to them in my child?” Understanding a child’s temperament doesn’t necessarily mean excusing it or adopting an accommodating parenting style. In many instances, parents who gain more understanding of their child’s temperament also understand why they need to take a firmer stance in a particular area.
  • Inequality. “If I treat my children differently, won’t I treat them unequally?” Different paths can lead to the same destination. With respect to each child’s temperament, the goal is to balance respect for the child’s behavioral style with respect for the parent, family, and community needs, including the need for the child to mature and grow. How that balance is maintained may vary from child to child, but when parents maintain that balance with each of their children, they are treating them all fairly.
  • More work for me. If I have to do things differently for different children, doesn’t that just add more work? Initially, sometimes. But down the road, life can be much easier, particularly for parents of children with very different temperaments.
How does temperament relate to ADHD or anxiety?
Hyperactivity, ADD or the companion diagnosis, ADHD, are labels applied in the medical, diagnostic procedure. They are a way of looking at children’s behavior, primarily so that a doctor can determine whether certain medicines may be of help. Presumably, if the child’s behavior fits a diagnostic pattern, certain drugs should be prescribed that have helped other children fitting that same pattern.

Although temperament concepts are gradually being used more in the medical field, they are not strictly part of this “medical model”. They do not lead to a diagnosis or a prescription, either behavioral or pharmacological. Their aim is to describe accurately the child’s behavioral style (see Question 1), tell parents when and how often certain issues are likely to occur, suggests useful ways of managing these issues, and generally provide parents with a greater understanding of how their child’s temperament “works”. This understanding can then generalize to other behavioral issues.

In practice, these two methods of mapping children’s behavior can be applied to the child. Either one or both can be useful. However, the temperament approach can be applied at a much earlier age. Most efforts to diagnosis ADD, ADHD, or “hyperactivity” occur after the child enters and has difficulty with school.

Other advantages to the use of temperament concepts:

  • The temperament approach leaves parents with more tools that they can apply, more sense of effectiveness.
  • Since no diagnosis is made, the temperament approach creates less risk of the stigma often associated with diagnoses. The child is less likely to feel there is something “wrong with how his head operates.”
  • Parents who can understand and manage their child’s temperament can also model that management for their child. Eventually, the child can copy parents and then learn to manage his or her own temperament. “Know thyself” becomes “manage thyself.”
  • Medications are helpful to many children with extreme temperaments, but an early understanding of the role of temperament can cut down on their need.
Do temperament questionnaires measure the child's temperament, or the parent's perceptions of temperament?
“Subjectivity” is a strongly debated issue in the field of temperament. Researchers concerned with accurate measurement have doubted the value of parental reports, particularly through temperament questionnaires.

Clearly, questionnaire ratings reflect both the child’s temperament and characteristics of the rater. The child is seen through the lens of the parent’s subjectivity. Whether that fact represents a source of “noise” and therefore a problem depends on your goals.

In research, the goal is to find the truth. The more bias-free the measurements, the more accurate the report and the more likely the underlying relationships between elements under study will emerge as “truth”.

But in a website of this kind, the goal is more than giving back to parents an accurate reflection of their child’s temperament, or accurate predictions of issues likely to occur in the short-term. We want to change how parents see their child.

In our initial work with health maintenance organizations, parents told us that just completing the temperament questionnaire helped them see their child’s temperament more clearly… even before they received back the results! The effort and thought they put into answering the questions changed how they saw their child.

So “subjectivity”, rather than just noise that blurs the signal, is here a central focus. A reliable profile is important, but only as a means to a more reliable parent. Our goal is to help you see in more detail your child’s temperament and understand how it works.

For this reason, the Image Of Your Child section asks for your General Impressions of your child’s temperament, as well as answers to the more specific, temperament questionnaire items. General Impressions are more likely to capture your initial preconceptions.

For example, most parents like to think of their child as “sensitive”. Few want to think they produced an insensitive clod. So when differences emerge between these General Impressions and scale score results, parents are prompted to reconsider their preconceptions.

We also recommend parents fill out the temperament questionnaire and General Impressions at 4-5 months, then continue to look for signs of their child’s emerging temperament and complete both forms again around 8 months of age. The results will probably be different. The child’s temperament may have changed or, given more time to see their child’s temperament and think through initial preconceptions, parents’ perceptions may have changed.

Are there sex differences in temperament?
Our research at Kaiser Permanente produced some interesting sex differences in infancy. For example, parents rated their four-month-old daughters as significantly more sensitive and fussy about wet diapers.

But the major sex differences in infancy were in the links between early temperament and later behavioral issues. Girls rated at 4 months by their parents as lower in frustration tolerance or adaptability (particularly to novelty) were more likely in later months to be seen as shy and fearful in strange places or experiencing sleep and separation difficulties. Boys, in turn, showed stronger associations between movement levels at 4 months and later assertiveness issues.

Are these true sex differences or cultural biases? Are parents more likely to continue to report shyness in their daughters, but deny it to their sons? Do parents hesitate to report a daughter’s self-assertion? These are interesting possibilities. As yet, there are no clear answers.

Does birth order affect temperament?
Many parents wonder whether their child is demanding or fearful or has some other temperament characteristics… simply because the child was first born. Or the last baby. Or in between. Were parents too anxious, too ready to give attention to their first child? Too slow to allow independence to their final baby? Too busy with the first and last child to pay enough attention to the middle one?

In our Kaiser Permanente studies, we found no link between birth order and parents’ perception of their infant’s temperament at four months. But the birth order did play a role in determining the strength of the relationship between the child’s temperament and the occurrence of later behavioral issues.

For example, if an infant was easily frustrated and intense in reactions at four months, separation issues, later on, were more likely if the infant was also first born. So birth order doesn’t affect temperament, but the consequences of temperament, operating through the goodness-of-fit between the child’s initial temperament and the parenting style generated by the infant’s birth order.

There are various reasons why parents of first or last-born infants may adopt an over-accommodating style. The inexperience of parents of first-borns may make them more anxious and willing to get up repeatedly at night. Or the fear of loss of the parenting role may make parents of the “last baby” more willing to bring that toddler into bed with them. But with respect to future behavioral problems, these possibilities don’t seem to make a difference… unless the child’s temperament is energetic or slow adapting or low in frustration tolerance.