Uniquely You: Understanding Your Child’s Temperament

Learn how to work with your child’s natural temperament to support their growth and development

There’s an age-old debate about whether a child is more influenced by nature or nurture. Is a child’s personality formed by how they were raised, or is it predetermined at birth? Although it’s fair to say it’s likely a mixture of both, a child’s temperament is a good example of how nature influences who we are.

Defining temperament

Temperament is a person’s general way of approaching the world, and it begins at birth. As a parent, you can shape behavior, but children are predisposed to certain traits. This is why you can have an “easy” baby who sleeps through the night, doesn’t cry without cause, and quickly adapts to schedule changes or new people and places and then have a completely different parenting experience with your next child.

Understanding and honoring the temperament of your child helps you learn to be the best parent possible for them as an individual. The realization that certain tendencies or patterns in their behavior are temperaments driven can help you plan for and accommodate those traits versus simply reacting or trying to combat a situation your child hasn’t necessarily chosen.

For instance, if your child is extremely active and spirited and you are attending an event that requires quiet, prepare them beforehand by offering an activity that allows some freedom to move or make noise directly before or after the event.

Types of temperament

Temperament is your child’s personal “style” when facing the world. There are many different factors that relate to temperament:

  • Emotional intensity
  • Activity level
  • Tolerance of frustration
  • Reaction to new people
  • Adaptability to changes

Based on the above factors, researchers generally group children into three different temperament types, characterized in the following ways:

  • Easy or flexible: Children tend to be calm, happy, adaptable, resilient, and regular with sleeping and eating routines.
  • Active or excitable: Children may be fussy, fearful of change or new situations, and easily overstimulated by noise; exhibit intense emotional reactions; or have difficulty maintaining a regular schedule.
  • Cautious or slow to warm: Children may be shy or withdrawn; require time to adapt to a new situation, object, or person; and may be less active or fussy.

Since children are individuals, they may share the same temperament yet react differently or with varying intensity to the same situation. Reactions also change depending on a child’s stage of development or experience with a certain event. However, a child’s overall temperament does not change over time. The visibility of any associated traits can evolve due to family values, parenting styles, or the environment around them, but someone with a more cautious temperament will always approach the world with that natural instinct, to a degree.

How to help

Understanding your child’s temperament and what that means in terms of raising them is important – especially the knowledge that you can’t force them to change who they are inside. However, you can help support who they are and give them guidance on facing the types of obstacles that challenge them as an individual.

The best thing you can do as a parent is teaching your children how to express their preferences and emotions appropriately and guide them through situations that challenge their natural temperament by anticipating potential issues and preparing them accordingly.

There is no right or wrong or good or bad temperament, although it’s true that some children may be easier for the parent than others. Your child’s temperament is part of what makes them who they are, and every temperament type serves a purpose in terms of the kind of adult they will grow up to be. Gain a better understanding of who your child is, and help them be the best version of themselves by working with their temperament instead of against it.

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.

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