Understanding Temperament…What are the characteristics?

We all are born with a unique disposition or way of responding to other people and situations- this is our Temperament.  Research indicates that temperament appears early in life and is significantly influenced by environmental experiences even before birth. There is also a lot of research suggesting that even though each person is different, most (but not all) children fall in one or more of each of the three temperament categories: Shy-Cautious; Flexible-Easygoing; and Feisty-High Intensity.  Today’s post focuses on temperamental characteristics, the power of using E-Parenting in response to a child’s traits and reactions, review of Growing Great Kids tools, and parenting tips and recommendations.

According to Karr-Morse and Wiley, in “Ghosts from the Nursery,” temperament is often confused with personality. At the core of temperament is the circuitry of the central nervous system and the chemistry that determines our most fundamental emotional and behavioral responses to life situations (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 1997). Many child development experts also agree that temperament often gets confused with personality and other terms as “temper.” Thus, a good place to start with parents might be to help them understand that temperament is not the same as personality. Personality is the combined impact of temperament and learned experiences on how we cope with the world, along with our sense of self and others.  In other words, temperament is a subset of personality. It refers to a child’s basic orientation to emotion and arousal, his/her ability to focus and adapt to new situations, and even his/her level of activity.

Psychiatrist Alex Thomas and other experts studying individual differences have identified that temperament consists of nine characteristics (Thomas et al, 1970), including:

  1. Level and extent of motor activity
  2. Rhythmicity, or degree of regularity, of functions such as eating, elimination and the cycle of sleeping and wakefulness
  3. Response to a new object or person, whether the child accepts the new experience or withdraws from it
  4. Adaptability of behavior to changes in the environment
  5. Sensitivity to stimuli
  6. Intensity or energy level of responses
  7. General mood or “disposition”, whether cheerful or given to crying, pleasant or cranky, friendly or unfriendly
  8. Degree of distractibility from what one is doing
  9. Attention span and persistence in an activity

Their studies indicate that any demands that conflict with a child’s temperamental capacities are likely to place them under heavy stress. It is critical that parents and caregivers recognize their child’s temperament and comfort levels. Supporting parents in understanding and working with their child’s unique qualities diffuses the tendency for parents to blame themselves or see the child’s temperament as deliberate misbehavior (Thomas et al, 1970).

We know that these nine temperament characteristics can be grouped into three general temperament types:

  • The Shy-Cautious Child: These children do not adapt to change quickly but can be engaged with extra effort by drawing them in slowly.  They also tend to have mild positive or negative responses to stimuli – they are very sensitive to bright lights and sounds.
  • The Flexible-Easygoing: These children are highly adaptable to changes in routines and environments. Usually, they are pleasant and easy to console or comfort.
  • Feisty-High Intensity: These children are strong-willed and intense.  They seem to be more irritable and have difficulty adapting to routines and new environments. Even their sleeping and feeding patterns tend to be irregular.

It is important to keep in mind that none of these temperamental types has a negative or positive value.  What matters is that parents gain an understanding of their child’s temperament and learn how to interact accordingly. One way to support parents with gaining confidence in their parenting abilities is to use The Growing Great Kids curriculum (GGK); it provides a few conversation guides on this topic at different age ranges. The GGK Social and Emotional modules include several subsections that address temperament such as:

o   4-6 month: Temperamental Characteristics: Your Baby’s Personality

o   10-12 months: Toddlers and Their Temperaments

o   31-36 months: How Temperament Influences Behavior and Behavior Problems

Each of these subsections incorporates E-parenting tips, tools to assist parents in identifying their child’s temperamental characteristics, and worksheets aimed at increasing parental understanding of their child’s specific behaviors, while finding parenting responses that will work for them.

Additionally, throughout GGK, parents are encouraged to be empathic to their child’s traits, behaviors and reactions. When parents feel and express empathy for their children, their own feelings toward parenting  become more positive.

The GGK E-Parenting Daily Do is a set of parenting skills designed to growing empathic parenting skills and self-regulation in children. As you know, the E-Parenting Daily Do consist of 3 steps:

1. Ask yourself what your child is experiencing

2. Put her feelings into words

3. Do something to help or support him

Parents are encouraged to do the E-Parenting Daily Do many times every day.  This will allow for the development of a strong and secure attachment relationship between the parent and the child. When children know and feel that they are understood, they manage their emotions in more appropriate ways – this makes them feel secure and protected.

As we have this discussed today, all children are born with individual temperamental characteristics. The empathic responses they receive from their parents and/or caregivers make a HUGE difference in how they learn to manage those temperamental traits and, in turn, how they interact with others.

Your role with families is HUGE too! When you support parents in gaining an understanding of their child’s temperament and how to respond in empathic ways, you are positively influencing their feelings about their child, their parenting skills, and this results in them  enhancing the lives of their children.


Karr-Morse, R., Wiley, M.S. (1997). Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

Thomas, A., Chess, S., Birch, H.G. (1970). The Origin of Personality. Scientific American, pp 102-109. Retrieved from http://www.acamedia.info/sciences/sciliterature/origin_of_personality.htm

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