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Understanding your child's temperament

Published on: July 01, 2006

Maybe your child's turned out to be just what you'd envisioned: a bona
fide mini-you whose personality blends in graceful harmony with yours.

Then again, maybe not. Perhaps your child is outgoing, gregarious and
intense, yet friends describe you as "reserved." Or maybe your
4-year-old's afraid to tackle the playground ladder. You, on the other
hand, have led climbing expeditions in the Himalayas.

New parents find out fast that babies come pre-wired -- and that
there's not much they can do to change those fundamental, built-in
qualities we call "temperament."

"When that little bundle arrives home, you're already beginning to see
inclinations that child has," says Sandra Looper, a former elementary
teacher and principal who teaches on-line parent education classes for
North Seattle Community College. "All children come with a
predisposition toward people and toward their environment. And that
predisposition may or may not correlate with that of their parents."

What happens when a child's temperament doesn't match a parent's
expectations? Danielle Kassow, Ph.D., a research associate at Seattle's
Talaris Research Institute, calls that a "poorness of fit" and says it
can affect a child's development. "Parents need to accept who the child
is," Kassow says.

Child development experts talk about a variety of temperament traits
commonly found in children. While the categories can differ, child
psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, considered
groundbreakers in the field, identified nine characteristics that can
be present from birth:

  • Activity level: Is your child relaxed or constantly on the go?
  • Rhythmicity: How does your child sleep? Eat? Are there noticeable patterns?
  • Approach/withdrawal: Is your child eager for new experiences or shy and hesitant?
  • Adaptability: Is he able to adjust to changes and transitions?
  • Sensory threshold: Is he bothered by loud noises? Bright lights? Certain food textures?
  • Intensity: Does he react strongly to situations?
  • Quality of mood: Is he negative and pessimistic -- or positive and hopeful?
  • Distractibility: Can your child stick with his activity?
  • Persistence: How quickly does he give up?

have their own ideas about which personality traits count, Kassow
notes, and often focus on their child's irritability and energy level,
and whether their children can adapt to new situations. Above all, they
worry their kids may be shy.

"In this country, we have a
cultural bias toward a particular personality we call 'Type A' -- we
admire it," says Sherry Wong, director of product strategy at Talaris.
"People think 'if my child's too shy, she won't do well.'"

While a child's temperament is "rooted in biology," according to
Kassow, parents still have the ability to shape and influence it. "A
child's success depends on the interaction between temperament and
environment," she says.

Parents can better understand their kids by listening to their
children's "inner cues," Kassow says. "They should try to interpret
what their child communicates to them."

At the same time, notes Sandra Looper, children must learn to function
outside the home. That means a shy child needs to try new things; a
take-charge child needs to let others have a turn; a highly
distractible child needs to be able to sit through a class. Teaching
kids to adapt to the world while respecting their innate abilities is
like "walking a parenting tightrope," she says. "Our parenting styles
-- how we react to behaviors and temperament -- can have a tremendous
influence on developing our children's personalities."

It helps to talk to children about their own temperaments, Wong says.
"Get them to think through how they can adjust to different situations,
what skills they will need."

It also helps to plan ahead, Kassow says. "If your child's shy, talk to
her about the birthday party ahead of time. Tell her, 'Mommy's going to
leave and then come back,' so she'll know what to expect.'"

And focus on the positive. What looks like a problem today might be an
advantage tomorrow. Is your son easily distractible? As a student,
that's a negative -- but as a future video game designer, that's a
plus. Or maybe your daughter's persistence drives you wild. That same
determination might drive her to solve complex math equations, Wong

Above all, avoid labeling. "Don't say, 'this is my shy one, this is my
athlete," Wong notes. "Parents tend to attach labels to their children
-- and blame certain traits on any issues they have. But this is only
one part of who the child is."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

Originally published in the July, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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