Temperament--The Key to Big Feelings and Bewildering Behaviors
Knowing about temperament can help you better connect with and understand yourself and your child. It gives meaning to behaviors! Some children may be easily overwhelmed by the world, others crave the novelty and noise of a busy environment! The awesome thing about understanding temperament is that it is biologically based. This means its just part of who your child is, and you can connect with their uniquely awesome needs and support them to help them build skills and experience the world with more joy!
There are a few words used to describe the concept of temperament. New research calls it Individual Differences, and I love this because it is inclusive. It helps us see each other as having unique needs, talents, and challenges. Chances are, you and your child thrive in very specific environments! Maybe you love a calm, quiet afternoon sitting in an armchair with a book. And maybe your child thrives on chaos and physical challenge. Or maybe she falls apart when the environment is loud or busy. Maybe you thrive on change and novelty but your little just can’t seem to transition! Understanding how temperament impacts your relationship with your children can release you from feelings of guilt for connecting with or “liking” on child more than another, or can validate your sense that conflict in the house just seems outside normal.
There’s so much to unpack when it comes to Individual Differences (or temperament.) Let’s take a look at the original research, first!
The older research labeled it temperament and most of you have probably hear this word thrown around! We all have temperament style/sensitivity. Your child has a style and so do you! But it’s more than hot/cold, shy/outgoing! Thomas and Chess outline nine types, and I broke it down like this:
Intensity of Reaction: some blink at sunlight, some scream. Intensity of reaction refers to you response to pleasure as well! Does your little one just seem to feel all the feelings in such a big way? When they are happy, they are super joyful, but disappointments can be devastating? Or are they a bit chill, or even keel? One with a high level of intensity may laugh at something new, one with low level may just give a clap.
Check out Zero to Three’s summary of intensity of reaction as well as parenting tips for children who are either BIG reactors or LOW reactors!
Activity Level: Some children (or grownups too) seem to be in constant motion, while other prefer table-top activities or playing with a dollhouse or legos. Their bodies prefer stillness and fine-motor input.
Sensory Sensitivity: Does your child like bright lights, seek out loud noises and interesting tactile sensations? Or do they cringe around bright lights or visual stimulation.
Adaptability: This is how you respond to change. Are you quick to adjust or does it take a while. One who is slow to adjust can take months to adjust to even a new bed! Here is Zero to Three’s article on Adaptability which they call Reaction to Change!
Approach/Withdrawal: In infants, do they stare or avoid contact? In kids, do they hang back and observe before interacting? What about you, as an adult?
Persistence: do you give up quickly or can you spend hours working out a problem or creating something?
Rhythmicity: This includes regularity of sleep/wake, hunger, eating, elimination. How “regular” are you and your child?
Quality of Mood: how often pleasant, joyful, friendly. I often work with parents who come in because their child’s Quality of Mood has changed. You know your kid—if they are usually easy-going, joyful and friendly, but suddenly become moody or angry for weeks at a time, you may have experienced the instinct that something is not quite right—their temperament, that personality, is different! They are not themselves and you know to listen to that instinct and dig deeper to find the cause!
Distractibility: For example, will your child stop what they are doing to attend to a passerby, or keep building that block tower while glancing up to check it out? What about you? Do you have to stop something completely to take note of, say, a person walking by, or a pretty flower at the side of the road?
So, that’s the basic overview of temperament! I decided to write on this topic, because I personally experienced a shift in how I think about one of my little ones! After learning about temperament, I realized I was being too hard on him—when it comes to adaptability, he needs much more time to adjust, and when I noticed that even getting used to a new bed can take months for some children to adjust to, I realized that a lot of difficulty he’s been having is due to multiple small changes in scheduling and family life! I’m a very quick to adapt grownup, and just assumed that my child was like me. No the case! Now, I have more empathy for a little one who just due to temperament (read: Individual Differences) needs more time and preparation for changes and transitions!
Next post I’ll talk about Goodness of Fit and I’ll add in more current info on sensory processing and attachment-- you’ll learn how you and your child’s temperaments/individual differences interact!