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DR. SUZY'S PRACTICAL PARENTING TIPS - Tuning Into Your Child's Temperament

Dr. Suzy is a Pennsylvania Licensed Psychologist who specializes in working with children and adolescents. She is a partner at Childhood Solutions, a private pediatric psychology practice in Ft.Washington, PA.

When it comes to parenting, knowing your child is the key to a happy parent/child relationship. While researchers used to believe that a child’s adaptation to the world is based solely on their innate temperament, we now know that it is the “goodness-of-fit” that matters most. That means how well a child’s temperament fits with his/her environment will determine his adjustment to the world, and, ultimately, shape his personality. Children typically fit into one of three temperamental categories:

  • Easy
  • Slow to Warm Up
  • Difficult

It is how we, as parents, interact with our children that determines their overall functioning in the world. Therefore, knowing your child’s temperament in relation to your personality is an important step to a rewarding parenting experience. Temperament, most notably associated with the work of Thomas and Chess (psychiatrists whose studies focused on temperamental traits of children), is comprised of nine traits. These include:

  • Activity level - how active a child is
  • Distractibility - how focused a child is vs. how easily external stimuli interferes with their behavior
  • Intensity - the degree of their reaction to both positive and negative events
  • Regularity - how predictable they are in terms of appetite, sleep and other biological functions-
  • Sensory threshold - their sensitivity level to stimulation such as touch, temperature
  • Approach/withdrawal - reaction to novelty
  • Adaptability - how well they transition or adjust to new situations
  • Persistence - their level of perseverance with a task
  • Mood - outlook on the world, my cup is half empty or half full

Whether a child is considered easy, difficult or slow to warm up, is determined by the clustering of these nine traits.

Now that you know that everyone is born with a specific, predetermined temperament, the natural question is what to do about it. For starters, take some time to get to know yourself. It will be easier to meet your child’s needs if you are keenly aware of your own temperament. Your own level of patience, tolerance, need for routine, energy, and mood are important factors in determining how you experience and plan for each and everyday.

For example, if your child has a high need for regularity and consistency and you thrive on spontaneity, you will need to adjust your daily routine to support his highest level of functioning.

Next, take some time to observe where your child falls in terms of the nine temperament traits. If you have a challenging child, think of your added insight as the first step to developing a parenting plan for your child. This plan should include ways in which you can support your child by finding ways to prepare her for an event before you are even there. For example, if your child thrives of routine, be sure to get her to bed early and give her adequate nutrition before a big event such as Thanksgiving with your relatives. Work hard not to judge your child and her reactions! Just because your child may need 20 minutes to adjust to a new music class and her friend jumps right into the music circle doesn’t mean your child is worse off!

Try to remember, a child’s temperament is neither good nor bad, it’s neutral. It is how you interact with your child that creates a good or bad experience!

Lets look at an example. Think about the last time you attended a young child’s birthday party. Birthday parties are excellent times to observe how young children respond to novel, stimulating environments. Temperament revealed!

Recently, at a 3 year-old’s gymnastics party I observed a 3 year old boy and his mother enter the party. The boy immediately put his hands over his ears and said “it’s too loud.” When his mother attempted to put him down to take off his shoes, he screamed “NO, NO, PICK ME UP!” Clearly, this was not a child with an easy temperament. His mother looked completely frustrated, her face got red and she peeled him off of her. Her response went something like this “all the other kids are playing nicely. What’s the matter with you? You are NOT getting cake if you keep screaming.” For the next 90 minutes, this same routine continued and through her reactions he got the message that he was disappointing her. Let’s just say neither he nor his mother enjoyed the party!

Clearly this mother was unable to provide her child with the level of support he needed to adjust to his new environment. It’s likely that she could have anticipated his reaction based on her previous experiences with him in new situations. If she had walked into the party and sat with him on her lap until he was ready to join the other children it’s likely his overall experience would have been positive. This child needed time to adapt to his new surroundings while in the comfort of his mother’s lap. Perhaps he would have chosen to remain in her lap for the entire party. If so, she could have shared the experience of watching the other children play with her child. This would have given him a positive experience and perhaps have allowed him to feel comfortable participating at the next birthday party.

Hopefully by reading this article you have added insight into how to better shape your reactions to meet the special needs of your most precious possession. Keep in mind that once you have tuned into your and your child’s temperament and subsequent needs, life will be more joyful and harmonious for both of you!

Suzanne G. Goldstein, Ph.D. Childhood Solutions

I’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts below.

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User Comments:
Chrissy said:
Very useful. My 3 year old doesn't have an easy temperament. I took him to a kids play area with lots of activities and bouncy play areas. As soon as he walked in the door he put his hands over his ears and wanted to leave. I went over in the middle of the activities and sat in a chair holding him and talked with him about what everyone else was doing. It took a while, and I had lots of stares because he was crying too. But eventually he came around and started playing with the other children. This article reinforced my belief that although difficult at first, it is better to be patient with the child rather than try to elude the situation. Thanks!
Rhianna Clark said:
what a great article! Im always worry about where my children fall into a certain category, and this showed me not to worry and not to take it out on my children when they arent comfortable! Every child is different and should be treated as such.
Sapphire said:
Just wanted to say that so far I love the column on Tuning into your childs temperment. That has been an interesting chalenge for me since I have two young boys that are night and day.
Chris said:
Nice article
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