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What is temperament? And how does it help us become better parents?

In one of my child development classes, I remember watching a video of a classic psychological experiment that focused on the temperament of babies. The video showed a series of babies about 9 months old sitting in a high chair with a toy in front of them. The only thing unusual about the scenario was that the toy was behind a plexiglass barrier so the babies could see the toy but not reach it or actually touch it.

Consider how your baby would react. Would they be the sort to grunt, cry and push their little body into every possible position in an attempt to reach that toy? Or would your baby take the more laid-back approach—simply leaning back in their chair and playing with their hands, instead?

You can see now why this simple experiment is a very informative assessment of temperament. While it only considers some aspects of temperament (persistence, reactivity), it clearly illustrates how each child's temperament varies from an early age and how they can respond so differently to the same situation.

What is temperament?

Child psychologists have been studying temperament for years and while there is always more to know, they have discovered nine main components. It's helpful to have a basic concept of these elements and consider how your child's temperament relates to each.

  1. Activity level: Energy level of the child
  2. Approach-withdrawl: How child initially responds to a new setting
  3. Mood: The child's general tendency to be happy or unhappy
  4. Rhythmicity: How regular are the child's physical/biological patterns (e.g., eating, sleeping)
  5. Persistence/attention span: A child's ability to stay with a difficult task
  6. Adaptability: Their ability to adjust to changes in routine
  7. Threshold: A child's ability to handle external stimuli (e.g., loud noises)
  8. Intensity: Their tendency to emotionally react strongly or less strongly to events
  9. Distractibility: The degree to which a child is easily distracted from a task or activity

With all these temperamental characteristics, it's important to remember that there is no "right" or "wrong" temperament. Temperament is thought to be at least partially genetic but also influenced by the environment in which the child is raised. Therefore, although your child may have some general temperamental qualities, it is possible they may change somewhat as they grow and experience their own unique environment.

Taking all these characteristics into account, you can start to get a general idea of your child's temperament. Although researchers have typically used these characteristics to classify children into "easy," "difficult," or "slow to warm up" categories, I tend to think that these categories oversimplify the situation. Humans are complex creatures and categories like these, while helpful for research, don't really tell us much that can inform our parenting.

Instead, I think it's helpful to look at the whole array of temperamental traits your child exhibits. Each child is so unique and some of this uniqueness can be captured through the combinations of temperamental characteristics.

For example, maybe your child is sensitive to stimulation, such as loud noises, but also very extroverted and loves social interaction. Or maybe your child is wary of new situations but also very persistent in tasks or activities. It's enlightening to see how your unique child approaches and interacts with the world.

Why temperament is so important

By understanding your child's temperament, you are able to approach parenting situations with a new lens of knowledge. These are just a few ways this knowledge can help you:

  • It helps you anticipate their behavior. When you see how your child approaches the world, you can foresee situations that might be easier or more difficult for them. For example, if your child is sensitive and reactive to stimulation, you may be able to predict that a noisy amusement park or play area may cause difficulty for them. Knowing this, you can either avoid certain situations or discover coping strategies in advance that might help your child handle the situation better.
  • It helps you respond with empathy. Your child's temperament will guide you in decoding their behavior and responding in a more mindful way. If your child just finished a play date with a friend and now is asking to go to another activity, knowing your child's temperament is extroverted and high-energy, you can understand that their physiological need for social interaction is probably what is fueling this. Given this, you can respond to that need, instead of chastising them for being ungrateful. Now, this doesn't mean they get their way every time, but it does help you respond from a place of empathy, rather than resentment. In most cases, this type of response goes a long way to helping stay connected to your child and building a bond of trust.
  • It helps you understand your own parenting reactions better. Looking through this new lens can help you determine why you react the way you do too. Do you and your child have similar or different temperaments? Just understanding this can help guide you in reflecting on your own behavior in relation to your little one. If you know that you are more extroverted and social but your child is more introverted, this might help you see why you react strongly to them when they don't want to try new things. We inherently respond to a situation based on how we feel or the need we have, but if we know how our child approaches the world, we can see the situation from their perspective.

Overall, approaching your parenting role through the lens of temperament puts you in a responsive state of mind. Approaching behavior and parenting from this perspective also puts your focus on your child's needs and unique characteristics. This perspective almost always leads to empathy, which fosters a deeper connection with our kids

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