Family Tapestries - Strengthening Family Bonds

Family Life Month Packet 2002

Family and Consumer Sciences

Campbell Hall 1787 Neil Avenue Columbus, Ohio 43210


Understanding Your Child's Temperament

FLM-FS-5-02

Kathy K. Oliver, M.S.,
Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Hardin County,
Ohio State University Extension, The Ohio State University

Parenting is one of the toughest jobs around. Guiding children in today's world takes a huge amount of physical and emotional energy. Parenting is a lively dance involving the interplay between the child's style and the parent's approach and responses.

What is Temperament?

Children are born with their natural style of interacting with or reacting to people, places, and things—their temperament. In the late 1950s, temperament research began with the work of Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and associates. The New York Longitudinal Study identified nine temperament characteristics or traits. The researchers found that these nine traits were present at birth and continued to influence development in important ways throughout life. By observing a child's responses to everyday situations, the researchers could assess these temperaments. Temperament is stable and differs from personality, which is a combination of temperament and life experiences, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Since the 1950s, many scientific studies of temperament have continued to show that children's health and development are influenced by temperament. We all know children who are much more challenging to deal with than other children, starting at birth. The realization that many behavioral tendencies are inborn—and not the result of bad parenting—is perhaps one of the most important insights parents gain from learning more about temperament.

Temperament Traits

The examination of a child's temperament generally occurs when the child's behavior is difficult. Clinicians use a series of interviews, observations, and questionnaires that measure the nine temperament traits using a spectrum (scale) indicating mild to intense responses or reactions. By understanding temperament, the parent can work with the child rather than trying to change his or her inborn traits. The nine temperament traits and an explanation of the dimensions are given below.

Temperament Types

These traits combine to form three basic types of temperaments. Approximately 65 percent of all children fit one of three patterns. Forty percent of children are generally regarded as "easy or flexible," 10 percent are regarded as "difficult, active, or feisty," and the final 15 percent are regarded as "slow to warm up or cautious." The other 35 percent of children are a combination of these patterns. By understanding these patterns, parents can tailor their parenting approach in such areas as expectations, encouragement, and discipline to suit the child's unique needs.

Most children have some level of intensity on several temperament traits, but one dimension will usually dominate. Refrain from using negative labels such as "cry baby," "worrywart," or "lazy." The child's abilities to develop and behave in acceptable ways are greatly determined by the adults in their lives trying to identify, recognize, and respond to his or her unique temperament. By doing so, the adults can alter or adjust their parenting methods to be a positive guide in their child's natural way of responding to the world.

Parenting with Temperament in Focus

Parents also need to get a clear picture of their own temperament traits and pinpoint areas in which conflicts with their child arise due to temperament clashing. When there is temperament friction between parent and child, it is more reasonable to expect that the parent will make the first move to adapt. When a parent or caregiver understands the child's temperament, he or she can organize the environment so that "goodness of fit" happens.

Here are principles to keep in mind as you strive to achieve this fit.

This match between the child's temperament and the demands or expectations of his or her environment (family, school, childcare setting) greatly improves relationships. Parents who are tuned into their child's temperament and who can recognize their child's strengths will find life more enjoyable. It will be a dynamic dance that will last a lifetime.

References

Goodman, R., & Gurian, A. (1999). Parenting styles/children's temperaments: The match. New York University Child Study Center, AboutOurKids.org.
Graham, J. (2001). Temperament. University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Bulletin #4358.
Olson, M. (1996, Spring/Summer). Ten keys to unlocking temperament. Arizona State University Research Magazine.
Turecki, S. (1985). The difficult child. New York: Bantam Books.

By understanding temperament, the parent can work with the child rather than trying to change his or her inborn traits.


For a pdf version of this Fact Sheet, please click here.

For more information, visit the Human Development and Family Life website at: http://www.hec.ohio-state.edu/famlife/


All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.

TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-6181



| Ohioline | Search | Fact Sheets | Bulletins |