Shall We Dance? How Temperament Affects Behaviour
I can never seem to make my child happy, no matter what I do. She has a tantrum every morning on our way to daycare. And when I pick her up after work, she refuses to leave without another scene! Grocery shopping with her is a nightmare, and don’t get me started on our bedtime battles. What is WRONG with her? Maybe I’m just a bad parent!
In a previous post, I stated that despite the masses of information about parenting, and the hundreds of experts who study children’s development and behaviour, parenting isn’t an exact science. When it comes to your own child, YOU have to become the expert. One of the best places to start is analyzing and understanding your child’s temperament.
Temperament refers to a “style” of behaviour. It’s the way a child naturally responds to the physical environment and the people around him/her. Over the last 60 years the study of childhood temperament has resulted in many interesting discoveries. Temperament is inborn, and observable as early as two or three months of age. Parents can influence how a child expresses herself, but a person’s basic temperament appears to be remarkably stable from infancy to adulthood. Researchers have described nine major temperament traits. You’ll probably recognize aspects of your child’s behaviour in this list:
- Activity level, which can range from calm and relaxed to active, even hyperactive;
- Rhythmicity, or how regular or predictable a child is in his sleeping, eating, and other habits;
- Approach/Withdrawal, which means how eager or reluctant a child is to respond to a new person, place, object, food, and so on;
- Adaptability, or, how easy it is for a child to adjust to changes in routine or schedule;
- Intensity of a child’s reaction to positive or negative experiences;
- Mood, which can range from a generally cheerful, positive, and outgoing child, to a serious, cranky, and unfriendly child. Some children’s moods are quick and frequent to shift, others are more even-tempered;
- Attention span, or how well a child can concentrate or focus on an activity;
- Distractibility or persistence, or the ease or difficulty of drawing a child away from an activity he’s doing;
- Sensory threshold, which affects how calm or how upset a child is with noises, bright lights, crowds, tastes or textures.
Each child is pre-programmed with a unique combination of these traits, already set at a particular level or intensity. Maybe your child is usually calm and pleasant. Maybe your child adapts to new situations and people with ease, and is generally willing to try new activities. If so—congratulations, researchers would say your child is one of the 40% of all children classified as “easy”.
Perhaps your child tends to be more serious. She’s a little suspicious of new situations, unfamiliar people, or different kinds of food. Over time, though, she does adapt and accept change. She’s one of the 15% of children who fall into the category of “slow to warm up”.
“Difficult”, “challenging”, or “feisty” children make up about 10% of the population. These children can be highly energetic, fussy, and loud in both their laughter and their tears. They’re easily upset by noise or bright lights, resistant to any change in routine or food, and prone to temper tantrums at the slightest provocation.
If you’ve done the math so far, you know that 35% of children exhibit various degrees of all nine temperament traits. They don’t fit neatly into the three broad categories outlined. But what does it matter, anyway? Why does it help a parent to know where their child “fits” on a continuum of traits?
Because when you understand that your child’s behavioural tendencies are inborn, you can stop blaming yourself for being a “bad parent”. As you begin to realize how your child reacts, you can work with him to prevent outbursts or ease transitions. By appreciating your child’s unique makeup, you can tailor your parenting—your expectations, the way you encourage him, and how you discipline him—to suit his needs and capabilities.
I want to share some tips and principles that will help you develop your parenting skills to suit your unique child so feel free to get more information here.
The Family Life Packet I linked to above says, in part, “By understanding temperament, the parent can work with the child rather than trying to change his or her inborn traits. Parenting is a lively dance involving the interplay between the child’s style and the parent’s approach and responses.”
Let’s enjoy the dance!