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How is it is possible that two siblings can have such different personalities? One child can be easily excited, full of energy and have no problem being left with other people, while the other child prefers quiet activities, needs time to ‘warm-up’ and often struggles with separation. What accounts for these differences in behavioural style or temperament?

If you have struggled to understand what makes your child ‘tick’ and how to respond to them, especially when their temperament doesn’t match your own, take comfort - you are not alone.

What is temperament?

Temperament has 9 ‘emotional building blocks’ or traits. While there is much variation in each trait, the high and low extremes can be the most challenging.

Trait Low High
Activity laid back needs to be on the go
Adaptability handles change well needs a lot of support
Approach Shy in new situations excited to meet new people
Distractibility Stays focused easily distracted
Intensity Easy going/calm very excited and expressive
Persistence Gives up easily very determined
Positivity(Mood) more cheerful/able to bounce back More serious, has a difficulty handling set-backs
Regularity Less predictable/harder to read regular eating/sleeping patterns
Sensitivity Unaware of things that bother others reacts strongly to changes in their surroundings

There are no good or bad temperaments

For children to feel good about themselves they need to be accepted for who they are. Avoid labelling your child’s temperament, for example, “She is so shy!” Over time this label may become how they define themselves and what was a tendency can become ingrained.

Genetics plays a strong role in shaping temperament

From birth, infants are well positioned to express their unique temperament, some more expressive, fussier and sensitive than others. New parents quickly become familiar with their child’s unique personality.

Every child needs a ‘champion’ – someone to nurture and tame their temperament

While a child’s temperament is with them for life, parents with fussier, more sensitive babies can take heart that their child’s temperament at birth does not predict their destiny. However, their temperament can determine how they might react, feel and behave in future and give clues as to how they learn best.

Parents, caregivers and the environment all shape a child’s temperament. With the support of loving caregivers, children can be taught to build on their strengths and learn how to express their exceptional personality traits in positive ways. For example, a child with a negative outlook can be helped to be more positive when you:

  • share stories with happy endings;
  • encourage friendships with other children; and
  • help them to notice when they are enjoying themselves and appear to be happy

“Goodness of fit” matters!

“Goodness of fit” describes how well a child’s temperament fits with their environment and the people who care for them. “Goodness of fit” is best accomplished when caregiving is adjusted to support the unique temperament of the child. A highly adaptable parent can foster a “goodness of fit” with their sensitive child by giving a warning prior to changes in routines and/or transitions, for example, “In five minutes it will be time to tidy up.”

Developing a goodness of fit is often easier said than done! To help you in your quest, try this free, interactive Infant Toddler Temperament Tool. It allows you to:

  • recognize and explore your temperament traits, as well as your child’s;
  • understand where your temperament is similar to your child and where it differs; and
  • learn about tips to promote a ‘goodness of fit,’ tailored to address your relationship with your child

Temperament is not associated with temper tantrums!

While some children are more easily frustrated than others, all children, in spite of their temperament, will at some point throw a temper tantrum. This is considered a normal part of child development.

Parents, you make the difference!

Taking the time to learn about your child’s unique temperament, ‘tuning in’ to them and adjusting your caregiving practices is hard work, but well worth the effort. When young children are able to manage the more challenging aspects of their temperament they are more likely to regulate their emotions, feel good about themselves and succeed in their future relationships and at school.