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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

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Understand Your Child’s Temperament to Make Parenting Easier

From the start, my 3 children have been very different – even when I was pregnant with them they felt different. One kicked and rolled constantly, one was so still he worried me … and one, well she just made me eat a lot of donuts! As babies and young children their innate differences became clear as they grew into teens. One is still more physical, one quite chill, and the other is a happy, fun, donut lover.

Everyone has their own temperament; their natural patterns, preferences, and personality. Temperament is a child’s individual way of reacting to the world, based on biological traits.

For example:

  • Some babies whimper when they need attention, while others scream.
  • Some toddlers run and explore the park, while others hang back.
  • Some preschoolers adjust easily to a new routine at school, while others don’t.

As parents, we can’t change our child’s temperament. However, by understanding it, you’ll be able to better understand their behavior – even when it seems challenging to deal with. You’ll be able to adapt your style of communication and discipline to fit the child’s personality – allowing them to learn better.

If you’re curious about your young child’s temperament, think about their:

  • Energy levels.
  • Reactions to events.
  • Ability to accept change.
  • First reaction to new situations.
  • Daily patterns.

In addition, consider:

  • How sensitive is your child to their environment?
  • How does your child handle frustration?
  • How easily is your child distracted?
  • What is your child’s general mood?

Nine Temperament Traits

There are 9 traits that work together to form temperament. Remember, these are pre-set preferences – the way an individual reacts to the world. Think of them as pieces of a puzzle that make your child unique.

Physical activity. Temperament affects how much your child needs to physically move each day.

Regularity (daily activity pattern). Watch your child to see if they eat, sleep, and have a bowel movement(s) at about the same time each day, or if routines and patterns are not very important.

Curious or cautious. How does your child respond to new people and new situations?

Adaptability. Note how well your child adjusts to changes. Some go with the flow, while others get upset by the unexpected. For example, a child may get upset when having to use a green cup instead of the usual blue cup. Is your child able to easily adapt to a new setting or not?

Intensity. This refers to how strongly your child responds to a situation. Positively or negatively? Calmly and low key or with a lot of emotion?

Mood. Is your child generally happy or unhappy? Once upset, does your child recover quickly or remain upset for some time?

Persistence/frustration reaction. Some children quickly become frustrated by limits or by lack of immediate success in play or learning. Other children continue with play and learning and patiently accept limits.

Distraction. Can you easily distract your child from a task or bad mood by talking or by offering another activity? Also, can your child continue to focus on a task without becoming easily distracted?

Sensitivity. Is your child comfortable or easily overstimulated in a busy environment? Think about how sensitive your child is to:

  • Light, sound, and smell
  • Texture of food or clothes
  • Your tone of voice
  • Crowds
  • Surprises

Understanding these traits is important – it allows you to adapt your parenting style to your child’s needs. For instance, you can:

  • Plan lots of time at the park for a child who has a high baseline level of activity.
  • Stick with a routine for the child who needs it – or if you can’t, you’ll learn to explain changes in the routine ahead of time. “I know we usually play with your Legos right after lunch but today we need to go to the store first – then we can go home and play.”
  • Calm an intense child more quickly by saying, “I know you’re so mad we have to leave the park,” and then give them a few minutes to express their anger.

How well your child’s temperament fits with their environment and parenting style can also play a role in their self-esteem.

  • When the fit is good, children feel better about themselves.
  • When the fit isn’t as good, behavioral problems may increase over time.

Understanding temperament will make your job as a parent easier and your child happier.

Find more resources for parents:

The Preventive Ounce website. This nonprofit organization helps parents identify and manage their child’s unique temperament

My Doctor Online:
Identify Your Child’s Temperament

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