Temperament can be defined as the way a young child acts and responds to different situations, caregivers, and strangers. It’s apparent from birth, and it’s unconnected to the kind of parenting we receive or the environment in which we live. Every parent knows – and every caregiver can attest – that each child is different. These differences are largely a matter of different temperaments.
Research suggests that 65 percent of children fall into three basic clusters of temperament:
Easy children (40 percent of all children) are not easily upset and have regular eating and sleeping habits. Difficult children (10 percent of all children) are fussy and fearful and often have irregular eating and sleeping habits. Slow to warm up children (15 percent) are withdrawn, slow to adapt, and somewhat negative in mood.
Children with difficult temperaments are at higher risk for social and emotional problems. It’s those problems that can create barriers for a child’s classroom learning, the ability to create relationships, learning to read, and successful careers.
Temperament tends to be stable throughout life–parents can’t fundamentally change their child’s temperament. A mismatch between a child’s temperament and a parent’s expectations is a common cause of conflict between a parent and a child and continuing negative behavior by the child.
However, sensitive and nurturing parenting can minimize the risks of social and emotional problems. Parenting that recognizes and makes allowances for children’s temperaments can minimize conflict and buffer children from negative social-emotional outcomes. For example, positive parenting appears to help babies with difficult temperaments become more cooperative and exhibit more self-control in their second year.
If a child is anxious or withdrawn in a new situation, we can encourage them to explore it rather than be over-protective. If a child is unafraid and takes too many risks, we can lovingly and calmly set firm boundaries and consistent schedules. If a child is impulsive, we can praise the behaviors we like and be gentle with discipline. Regardless of the kind of temperament a child has, we can help him understand how it affects his feelings, his behavior, and his relationships with others.
Understanding temperament can help parents fine-tune their parenting approaches to their child’s unique needs. It can also ensure that parents don’t blame themselves or their child for behavior that is normal for the child’s temperament.
On this, science and conventional wisdom agree: a child’s temperament can’t be changed, but children of any temperament can be guided toward positive social and emotional outcomes when parents and caregivers provide a great deal of support and affection, set limits, and respond consistently to children’s needs.