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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.