Temperament has been described as the lens through which we view the world and interact with the environment. It refers to a range of personality characteristics, which show some stability over time.
As these individual differences appear soon after birth, it has been suggested that temperament has a hereditary component. There is evidence that there is a genetic influence on personality that means children are born with a tendency to act and react to the world in ways that can be predicted. Infants can be seen to have 'a preferred way of responding' to things around them, and these are marked differences in infants that can be identified in the earliest days of life.
Temperament does not fix behaviour but establishes a range of options for interactions between a child and their environment. Some of these options are made more or less likely by individual characteristics of the child, the caregivers and the child's environment.
In the 1950s, two psychiatrists, Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, identified a range of 9 characteristics which, when clustered together, came to be known as temperamental types. The nine characteristics can be placed on a continuum from a mild reaction to a strong reaction or from high to low. They are:
- Activity Level
- Approach - Withdrawal
- Sensory Threshold
These traits cluster into:
These are those amazing babies that tend to be placid and contented, have predictable routines and have a mild response to frustrations (adaptable).
Slow to Warm Temperament
These babies tend to show avoidance or distress in response to new experiences and are slow to adapt to new situations, react mildly and have somewhat irregular routines.
Every mother who has had one of these babies knows who they are. They cry a lot, have irregular routines, are difficult to calm and do not adapt well to new situations and/or people.
Children with a difficult temperament are more likely to show problems with their behaviour.
Temperament has been shown to be responsive to environmental influences. The problem with babies with difficult temperaments is that their irritability and lack of regular routines can affect the relationship with their primary caregiver (usually the mother) and result in her being less responsive which in turn affects the baby's security of attachment. This cycle can affect, over time, whether the temperamental characteristics of the baby moderate or are accentuated. Mothers who see their child as difficult may need help to 'break the cycle' and improve the parent/infant relationship. It has been shown that improving communication between the parents and increasing their social and mutual support helps.
It is interesting to note that the majority of children rated as having a difficult temperament do not carry this temperament (as behaviour problems) on to later ages. A longtitudinal study in Canada showed for example, that the majority of babies with difficult temperament had lost these characteristics by age 4 years (Maziade et al, 1989a). Difficult temperament does however increase the vulnerability of the child (see Resilience) to combinations of other internal and/or external stressors. Factors such as family conflict and parental management strategies interact with temperament to influence outcome (Marshall and Watt, 1999).
Functions of Temperament
The choices that a parent has in thinking about their child's behaviour are many. A parent may consider a child's loud shrieking as 'lustiness' and excessive energy as enthusiasm and zest for life. Intensity and persistence can, for example, be assets or liabilities!
A study by de Vries (1984) examined the temperament of young Masai children in East Africa. He found that temperamental styles were similar to those found in the USA. When he returned to follow up these children some years later following a famine, he found that large numbers of placid children had died while the majority of those classified as difficult were alive and doing well. Studies such as these show that in some environments some of these characteristics can be highly functional.
"Spirited kids are the super balls in a room full of rubber balls."
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka refers to the child commonly seen as difficult, strong willed and stubborn as a "spirited child". She states that this group can be defined as being "more" of everything - intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent and energetic. These are the children that score on the extremes of the scales that are shown above. She cites the actor, Robin Williams, as someone who may well have been a spirited child and cites examples from history where this energy and intensity have been channelled in positive ways to be of great benefit to society.
Goodness of Fit
Thomas and Chess (1977) use the term "goodness of fit" to mean the degree of overlap between an infant's temperament and the image of the ideal child held by that child's parent. The goodness of fit will determine the parent's behaviour towards the children and how this temperamental pattern will be altered over time.
A good fit is when the expectations, demands and opportunities fit well with the individual's temperament.
A poor fit is the converse of this, often resulting in excessive stress and an unhealthy developmental course may eventuate.
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka talks about being aware of the interaction between the child and their temperament and the parent's or caregiver's temperament. She states that there are benefits and drawbacks from being a cool parent and being a spirited parent. The important part is recognising that you and your child are alike or different. If you are alike you may well set each other off, if you are very different it can be about having no understanding of some of the issues that will affect your child.
The book "Raising Your Spirited Child", moves through the different temperamental traits and gives ideas and activities designed to assist children learn ways of coping and positively channelling their energies. It also includes the temperamental checklists for parents to complete on themselves and discusses the interactions necessary to make life manageable and positive.
Adaptation to Change
Isolina Ricci (1997) discusses the ability of children to adapt to changes and challenges in their lives. She describes this ability as a child's unique TLC.
T= Temperament and resilience
L= Level of development and prior experience
C= Constitution, physical sturdiness (p135)
She uses this formula to discuss why it is that some children may adapt readily to new circumstances whilst some may take months or even longer. She states that some children may become physically ill and others may regress in their development as they struggle to cope with change. She states that a wise parent should be aware of this and should be vigilant with sensitive and vulnerable children.
Research has shown that children from divorced families have an increased risk of developing problems. Problems can include problems with behaviour, health, academic performance, self esteem, aggression and delinquency, problem solving and coping skills (Marshall & Watt 1999). The interaction of risk and protective factors tends to determine the outcome for the child. It appears that it is not the act of divorce itself that triggers difficulties but the conflict leading up to and around the divorce. Divorce that removes a child from a high conflict situation improves child outcomes, conversely the longer the conflict continues post divorce, the higher the risk for the child.
How Can I Help?
- As stated above, you can be aware of your child's temperament. Some children find change more difficult than others
- You can minimise the trauma around change by remembering that you are the adult and they are children and keeping adult issues separate from child issues
- You can forewarn children of change and make it as predictable as possible
- Retaining as many of a child's usual routines as you can is also helpful
- Try to stagger major changes whenever this is possible eg. you may be able to leave them at a school until the end of the school year even if you move house, and try not to move house and have a new sibling enter the household at the same time
- Chess, S. & Thomas, A. (1987) Know Your Child: An Authoritative Guide for Today's Parents. NY: Basic Books.
De Vries, M.W. (1984) Temperament and infant mortality among the Masai of East Africa. American Journal of Psychiatry, 141, 1189-94.
- Hetherington, E.M. and Parke, R.D. (1986) Child Psychology, A Contemporary Viewpoint 3rd Edition. McGraw Hill, Singapore. Chapter 3.
- Marshall, J., & Watt, P. (1999) Child Behaviour Problems: A Literature Review of the Size and Nature of the Problem and Prevention Interventions in Childhood. The Interagency Committee on Children's Futures, Western Australia.
- Maziade, M., Cote, R., Bernier, H., Boutin,P., & Thievierge, J. (1989a) Significance of extreme temperament in infancy for clinical status in preschool: 1. Value of extreme temperament at 4-8 months for predicting diagnosis at 4-7 years. British Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 535-543.
- Ricci, I (1997) Mom's House, Dad's House. Simon and Shuster, New York.
Sheedy-Kurcinka, M. (1991) Raising Your Spirited Child. USA: Harper Collins
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