Understanding your Child's Temperament: Part 3 in our series on Healthy Families

Erin Belanger, LMHC

Any parent with more than one child can tell you that their children’s temperaments are very different and that they have been different from the start. They can also tell you that attempting to change temperament is impossible and will only bring you and your child great frustration! Read on to learn more about temperament and why it is so important to understand when thinking about parenting your children.

What is Temperament?

Temperament describes your child’s way of relating to the world through descriptions of their behavior in relation to their environments. Many children’s temperaments fall into one of three main types: easy, slow to warm up/shy, or difficult/challenging. These categories are further defined by nine temperament traits, including adaptability, mood, activity level, distractibility, and rhythmicity/regularity.

First, a child with an easy temperament tends to be highly regular, take a positive approach to new situations, is highly adaptable, has mild to moderate intensity in their reactions, and has a mostly positive mood. Parents of these children generally feel quite successful as easy temperament children adapt to most any parenting style and situation. About 40% of children born have an easy temperament.

Second, a child with a slow to warm up/shy temperament will demonstrate a mild negative response to new situations, be slow to adapt at first but improve with more time and exposure, tend to be more anxious and timid in their approach, and are inflexible in their routines. Parents generally find that these children fall between the easy and difficult temperaments when it comes to parenting difficulty. About 15% of children fall in this category.

Finally, a child with a difficult/challenging temperament tends to be irregular, demonstrate negative reactions to new situations, have difficulty adapting to change and react with high intensity (to both positive and negative events), tend to see the negative before they can see the positives in a situation, and tend to be very sensitive to stimuli. Parents, and many others, know what these children are thinking and feeling at all times as they feel their feelings at high volume. Parenting these children can leave parents feeling frustrated and insecure about their skills as parents. About 10% of children fall in this category.

The children who are not accounted for completely by the above categories (about 35%) are a combination of the categories and may be better understood by looking at the nine temperament traits. Parenting styles, likewise, will be combinations of the above categories.

Why should we work to understand children’s temperaments?

These categories are helpful for putting words to the experience of how our children relate to their worlds, but we need to be careful not to over-categorize them. Instead, understanding temperament allows us to choose parenting styles and strategies that are tailored to our child’s needs rather than parenting according to our own temperament and parenting style preference.

We saw a particularly powerful picture of how important temperament is to parenting style when the pandemic really settled in at the end of the last school year. Many parents became concerned about their children’s behavior, reporting increased depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues. Many of these concerns, though, were able to be explained by the child’s temperament and their need for something different from their parents during a tumultuous time with little certainty. Parents, however, were stretched thin and experiencing their own heightened anxiety, and they tended to move back to their default parenting styles, losing attunement with their children. Therefore, they were more likely to misidentify temperament based behavior as problematic behavior speaking to an inherent underlying issue. By re-identifying temperament, these parents were able to readjust their parenting styles and typically saw their concerns about their child resolve with some time.

So, how do I parent my own children with very different temperaments??

In our next two newsletter articles, we will tackle parenting children who do not have an easy temperament. We will discuss both the challenging and shy temperaments and will talk about what to do if your child falls into more than one category. For now, if you need help identifying your child’s temperament and want to work on shifting your parenting style to better match their temperament, please contact us at 518-374-3514 or office@samaritancounselingcenter.org.

Also, keep your eye out for an invitation to a temperament discussion via zoom in the near future, and more resources in our office for better understanding temperament and parenting styles!