Child Temperament Traits - How to Understand and Support Your Child

What are common child temperament traits and what role do parents play?

child temperament - boys jumping outside
Do you know your child's temperament and how to nurture it?. Nick David/Getty Images

How is your child likely to react to things or approach situations? Is he more likely to be cautious and shy or bold and fearless? Does he dislike loud and stimulating situations, like a child's birthday party or is he someone who loves to dive right into the action?

Temperament is defined as the components of our personalities, such as being outgoing or being shy, that we are born with. Each child is born with his own individual way of reacting to or handling the world around him that is innate, rather than learned or something that he chooses.

 And in turn, a child’s temperament influences how he experiences situations (for example, a child who is shy and dislikes noise, excitement, and new situations will have a very different experience at a child’s birthday party than a child who jumps right in and starts playing games and engaging with the other kids).

Here are 9 typical child temperament traits identified by physicians Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and Herbert G. Birch:

1. Activity Level
The level of how physically active a child is--moving, running, jumping, and so on--compared to inactive periods when she's sitting still doing an activity

  • High activity level: Kids with high activity level tend to squirm and fidget and don't like sitting still.
  • Low activity level: Kids with low activity level prefer quiet, calm activities.

2. Rhythmicity
The regularity of activities like eating, sleeping, and wakefulness

  • High rhythmicity: Kids exhibit regular and predictable eating, sleeping patterns.
  • Low rhythmicity: Kids exhibit irregular eating, sleeping patterns.

3. Distractibility
The degree to which external stimuli (sounds, sights, etc.) can affect a child's concentration and behavior

  • High distractibility: Kids are easily distracted by noises and things they see; have trouble concentrating; very distracted by any small discomfort such as being hungry.
  • Low distractibility: Kids are able to concentrate on an activity without easily being distracted; not bothered by small discomforts.

4. Approach/withdrawl
The response to a new person or object such as new toys, new foods, etc.

  • High approachability: These kids enthusiastically welcome and approach new situations and people.
  • Low approachability: These kids do not like new and unfamiliar people, places, and things.

5. Adaptability
How a child responds to changes in his environment

  • High adaptability: Kids handle transitions well and quickly adapt to changes in a situation.
  • Low adaptability: Kids need more time to handle transitions and may cry and cling to mom, dad, or a caregiver when faced with a new situation.

6. Attention span and persistence
The amount a time a child devotes to an activity and how distractions affect his attention to that activity

  • High attention span and persistence: These kids do not get easily discouraged or frustrated even when there are obstacles; they keep trying.
  • Low attention span and persistence: These kids give up when they face a roadblock and easily become frustrated.

    7. Intensity of reaction
    The amount of energy a child spends on both a positive and a negative reaction

    • High reaction intensity: Kids with high intensity reactions tend to have very strong reactions--both positive and negative--to things.
    • Low reaction intensity: Children with low-intensity reactions tend to have muted, less emotional reactions.

    8. Responsiveness threshold
    How much stimulation is required for a child to respond; a child's sensitivity to stimuli such as sound, light, and textures.

    • High responsiveness threshold: These kids tend to be highly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells, touch, and so on; they tend to be picky eaters and may be the kind of kids who refuse to wear anything that they think feels "scratchy," even though most people wouldn't feel the fabric as scratchy.
    • Low responsiveness threshold: These kids aren't sensitive to changes in textures, sights, and smells, and will be open to trying new foods; they aren't sensitive to new surroundings, and can fall asleep easily anywhere.

    9. Mood
    Level of friendly, nice, and happy behavior compared to unfriendly, negative, unpleasant behavior

    • Positive mood: Kids who have positive mood tend to be generally cheerful, pleasant, and friendly.
    • Negative mood: Kids who have mood that veers toward negative tend to be cranky, unfriendly, and more prone to crying.

    How Parents Can Work with Child Temperament Traits and Help Bring Out the Best in Their Child

    To best support your child and work with his temperament, try the following:

    • Don’t try to force your child to be something he is not. If your child is clinging to your leg at the start of school or at a classmate’s birthday party, don’t try to push him into being like the other kids who are waving goodbye to their parents. It will likely not work, you may feel frustrated, and your child will feel guilty.
    • Encourage—and encourage again. Do not give up trying to get your child to try something that goes against his nature if you feel like it would be good for him (such as trying new foods or joining kids at a party).
    • Don’t engage in comparisons. Try not to say to your child things like, “Your brother doesn’t do that,” or “Your friend isn’t like this.” Children are individuals, with different temperaments and preferences and reactions. Our job is to parent to the child, not to make all children the same.
    • Put on the positive spin. In life, it makes such a big difference how we approach things. Just as how your child approaches and reacts to situations makes a difference in how she experiences something, the way you see your child can affect your reactions. If you have a child who tends to have a meltdown if things don’t go the way she wanted, work with her to help her express her feelings in a more calm and respectful way, without tears and tantrums. But don’t make her feel like she should not express herself or be less confident about what she wants. Think about your child and describe your child to others as someone who is very sure about what she wants and likes and is not afraid to express her opinions.
    • Think about how your own personality or experience is coloring your reaction to your child. If your child is shy and you find yourself becoming annoyed, think about what may be causing you to feel this way. Is it because you were a shy child and you hate the idea of your child following in your footsteps? Or were you always bold and outgoing and fearless and thus feel frustrated that your child is so different from the way you were as a kid? Give some thought to what's behind your reactions and then try to remember that your child is an individual with her own temperament and traits, not a copy of you.
    • Try to remember how temporary it all is. You may be worried that your child will always be this way (that he’ll jump into things without looking or the opposite--that he'll never let go of your leg); but the fact is, kids do grow and change. With your support, love, encouragement, and gentle nudging (but not criticism), your child may very well go more to the middle of the road in many things and find balance as he grows.

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