What's in a Temperament?

You wish you understood your child’s temperament. Maybe, not all the time, just in some certain circumstances, like: when you inadvertently destroy their morning by giving them Weetbix when it’s CLEARLY “RICE BUBBLES” DAY! (cue sobbing).
If your first response to these situations is ‘stop, drop and roll’, or maybe, ‘fight fire with fire’, we are going to share some tips on how you can help your child work through these moments without getting worked up yourself.
First, pause for a second and think of a child you know who has an ‘easy temperament’ and then think of one with a ‘difficult temperament’ (e.g., Rice Bubbles kid). You instantly create a list of differences between the two children’s temperaments. Hold that thought.
Recent research tells us ‘temperament’ can be a useful way of understanding a child better: for example, perhaps parents can learn to see their child as someone who is trying their best to wrestle with intense emotions, instead of a child who is selfish or ‘playing up just to be difficult’.
So, what is temperament? Researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas developed the best-known classification for temperament: easy, moderate and difficult from studying a large group of New York children from birth (these are called “longitudinal studies” just to throw some Psychological jargon in there). Chess and Thomas defined temperament on the basis of nine different criteria:

  1. Sensory threshold: how sensitive a child is to stimulation from the environment
  2. Activity level: the level of physical activity while awake and while asleep
  3. Intensity: how reactive the child is emotionally (positive and negative emotions)
  4. Rhythmicity: how consistent and predictable the child is in their daily cycles (appetite, sleep, toileting and so forth)
  5. Adaptability: how easily the child copes and flexibly adjusts in the face of new things, changes in routines, and switching between activities (transitions)
  6. Mood: the basic emotional disposition of the child (usually happy, serious, anxious, angry)
  7. Approach/withdrawal: how open the child is to exploring new experiences, places, situations
  8. Persistence: how long the child will keep trying when a challenge/obstacle presents itself
  9. Distractibility: how easily a child focuses when other things are competing for their attention

Now think of the list you made earlier and compare it to these nine criteria. I’m sure there are similarities.
The children were then given a score based on these nine criteria, and they were categorised as easy, moderate, or difficult temperaments.

  1. Easy temperament kids are adaptable, robust, easy-going, and of a calm/happy nature
  2. Moderate temperament kids might have some strong emotions or limited adaptability but these can be overcome easily: for example feeling nervous initially and then ‘warming up’
  3. Difficult temperament kids are typically some combination of highly sensitive, intense in their emotional response, highly active, unpredictable, hard to calm or settle, variable in mood, have difficulty adapting flexibly, and may easily give up or become distracted

Our tips
So, what does it mean for parenting if you have a child with a difficult or moderate temperament? The first thing is, don’t despair: these characteristics can be worked upon!
So how do you respond when the bowl of Weetbix is now wall art? Fortunately, there are some strategies: to start with, a child needs opportunities to calm down and ‘ride out’ their intense emotions. This requires the adult (AKA you) to be as calm as possible (get up off the floor and be happy this time it missed your head). The child also needs to know that you understand how they feel, which helps them understand and begin to accept their emotions. Thinking of it as “leaning in” more to try and see it from their perspective first. Here are some phrases that can help you do this:

  • Buddy, I know how much you like rice bubbles, so I can get why you must have been feeling disappointed if you were in the mood for rice bubbles for your breakfast today…
  • Hey, it can feel really annoying when it’s time to finish playing Lego to go to Kindy, and I can see you’ve made that great castle and it’s really coming along!
  • I know how hard you find it to get ready for bed sometimes, especially when you’re feeling tired and had a busy day: I get a bit frustrated sometimes with getting things done at the end of the day too.

And lastly, some children simply cannot see that there are other ways of approaching a problem and can get stuck. Then, when parents get upset it sometimes limits their own flexibility. Here are some strategies to unlock a stuck situation:

  • Make a deal: if you finish your breakfast now, tonight we’ll make a breakfast menu for the week.
  • Introduce rewards: if you have all of your breakfasts this week, we’ll go out for pancakes on Saturday.

There aren’t any easy answers, but understanding that all kids are different (and the fact that through no fault of their own some kids simply have more intense emotions) is a good place to start. And it’s important to realise that nobody’s perfect: we all have strengths and weaknesses. Lastly, many traits can be both a strength and a weakness: for example being emotionally sensitive can make someone volatile, but it can also make them good at understanding how others might be feeling.
So, we know you want pancakes on Saturday as much as your child does so give them a chance to succeed! Also, while you’re ordering, drop ‘longitudinal’ into the conversation: your waiter is probably an undergrad Psychologist!