A person's "temperament" refers his or her behavioral "style," how he or she experiences and reacts to internal and external challenges and situations. It is not to be confused with specific attributes such as developmental level or coping skills, but is rather the collection of themes that run beneath the more superficial day-to-day aspects of behavior. If Johnny has a tantrum because he cannot have a toy, that is a situation. If Johnny has always been prone to have exaggerated responses to minor frustrations, that is temperament.

Variations in temperament are largely responsible for the fact that one child's behavior can be so different from another's, even when siblings with the same parents are compared. A given child's "temperament" is probably the major determinant of this observed and often very perplexing variation in behavioral responses to the same situations. Put bluntly, some kids are a heck of a lot harder to deal with than others from day one, and the reason lies within the child. The standard behavioral prescriptions we all hand out to parents just don't work very well if at all for these children, and they need special consideration and handling.

For an example in which I have more than passing interest, as a general rule, children should be taught to settle themselves to sleep in their cribs and beds rather than be rocked or nursed to sleep. There are of course major behavioral sleep problems that develop as an essentially unavoidable consequence of violating this rule of thumb. But it is undeniable that learning this skill is more difficult for some babies or toddlers than others.

Which does not absolve the parents of responsibility for attempting to teach these skills, but recognizes that for some children, much more patience and creativity are required.

Parents' perceptiveness concerning their child's temperament-based difficulties and creativity in adapting to these difficulties are major factors in their parenting "success," however it is difficult for new and inexperienced parents to see past the distraction of a chronically fretful baby to understand that the baby is the one having the bad day, not the parents. In other words, confronted with the sorts of difficulties temperamental attributes can cause in a child, often the best response is sympathy and conscientious efforts to help and soothe the child, but without taking on an impossible burden of guilt when the parent cannot fix everything.

Current research places the origin of temperament as about 50% determined by genetics - inborn and innate; and about 50% caused by the interaction of innate characteristics with the environment. It is however important to remember that when we speak of 50% influence of the environment, that does not imply that this half of the equation is under parental control. Parents who interpret this estimate (and remember it is a guess and not verified fact) as meaning that somehow they are in control of how things turn out temperamentally are missing the point. That sort of thinking leads to unwarranted feelings of inadequacy and guilt ("If only I had been a better mother...").

Examination of a child's temperament obviously only occurs in any serious way when the child is difficult for the parents to deal with. If the parents are unfortunate enough to have the difficult one first, they will invariably blame themselves for their child's difficulties.

The chart below gives a descriptive classification of the generally agreed upon areas of temperament that researchers and clinicians study. This breakdown should help parents identify those facets of their child's temperament that may be important to understanding the origins of problems and possible strategies for dealing with them.

The Dimensions of Temperament

Activity Amount of physical motion during sleep, eating, play, dressing, bathing, etc.
Rhythmicity Regularity of physiologic functions such as hunger, sleep, and elimination
Approach/Withdrawal Nature of initial response to new stimuli - people, situations, places, foods, toys, procedures
Adaptability Ease or difficulty with which reactions to stimuli can be modified in a desired way
Intensity Energy level of responses
Mood Amount of pleasant or friendly or unpleasant or unfriendly behavior in various situations
& Attention Span
Length of time particular activities are pursued by the child with or without obstacles
Distractibility Effectiveness of extraneous stimuli in interfering with ongoing behaviors
Sensory Threshold Amount of stimulation such as sounds or light necessary to evoke discernible responses in the child
Derived from Thomas A, Chess S, Temperament and Development, New York, Brunner/Mazel 1977

Additional Resources

We lend out The Difficult Child, by Stanley Turecki, M.D., Bantam Books, 1985 (mentioned elsewhere on the Recommended Books page) in the office for parents with children whose problems seem to involve issues of temperament. Dr. Turecki is a child psychiatrist whose own experience with a very difficult daughter led him to study and reflect deeply on the innate temperament issues that make parenting difficult children such a trial. If you have a child in whom the issues of basic temperament seem to get in the way of an enjoyable parenting experience - order and read this book.

Also, do not forget The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris, Free Press. This is a book that will stand most of what you think you know about children and parenting on its head. The author, an extraordinarily insightful psychologist, explains how children really learn to be successful children rather than miniature adults and why grownups' commonly accepted ideas about how children develop their personalities are actually just assumptions based on cultural beliefs. Especially pertinent to the discussion of temperament are her views on the complex interactions of children's temperament with parental temperament, attitudes, and abilities. Order from Amazon.

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