Temperament is a child’s individual way of reacting to the world. How they engage with others, how they handle new situations, how they respond when they are feeling certain emotions – this all comes down to their temperament.
There’s been a lot of thought put into children’s temperaments, including babies and infants. In the 1960s, some psychologists in New York started the largest study of temperament ever conducted. It ran for three decades and assessed 131 babies from the age of three months until adulthood.
At the end of the study, the researchers proposed nine characteristics of temperament and outlined three different children’s temperament types.
NOTE: The children’s temperaments discussed below are different to the four temperaments which date back to Hippocrates. These four temperaments are sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.
While we don’t encourage any parent to put a ‘label’ on their children, knowing your children’s temperaments can be a helpful way to understand how and why they react the way they do. You can’t change their temperament but you are able to change your own expectations and reactions based on their specific temperament.
Another important thing to note here is that siblings won’t always have the same temperament. One child may fall into the “easy” temperament while another one may be considered “difficult”.
Let’s take a closer look at each temperament type, shall we?
The three temperament types in children
Children who fall into the ‘easy’ temperament are low-key, laid-back, and generally pretty chilled-out children. Around 40 percent of children are considered to have an ‘easy’ temperament.
- Generally positive
- Easy to calm down and rarely upset
- Adapts well to changes
- Regular eating/sleeping patterns
- Not fussed with meeting new people
- Not easily frustrated or angry
- Low to moderate activity level
SHY OR SLOW TO WARM
Slow-to-warm infants, toddlers, and preschoolers may be different in public than they are in the comfort of home. They may come off as shy or cautious. About 15 percent of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers fall into this category.
- Shyness and withdrawal from unfamiliar people and situations
- Hesitance to meet new people
- Cautious and anxious in new situations
- Separation anxiety
- Low to moderate activity level
- Low intensity of mood expression
We hate this term but, hey, we didn’t make the temperaments up. “Difficult” or, as I prefer, spirited children may be considered fussy with high energy and high intensity. They feel strongly, they act strongly and they play strongly. Around 10 percent of children have a difficult temperament.
- High energy, high intensity
- Often stubborn, bossy, and difficult to please
- Very expressive – temper tantrum queen or king!
- Has trouble handling new situations and people
- May have difficulties playing well with other children
NOTE: About 35 percent of children have a variety of temperament traits and are hard to place in a single category.
The nine temperament traits
How do you determine what temperament your child fits into? This comes down to temperament traits. The big experts in New York identified NINE different traits.
Here they are:
1. PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Temperament affects how much your child needs to physically move each day and even how they move. For example, two children may play at the park, but one child may race from activity to activity while the other is happy to walk to the swings, stop for a drink and sit down for a bit.
Monitor your child’s activity level – do they sit for long periods? When they do sit, are they restless or moving their bodies? Do they need to get up and move often? Or are they happy to stay calm and quiet?
This simply refers to their daily activity and routine. Some children are really good at handling a strict routine where they eat, sleep, and even poop, around the same time of day. Others have trouble keeping this routine in place.
3. SENSORY THRESHOLD
How does your child react in a busy environment with lots of bright lights, lots of sounds, and different smells? Some children are perfectly fine with an overly stimulating environment while others have difficulties processing it.
Sensory sensitivity also focuses on things like the texture of clothing and food (some kids HATE clothing tags or mushy foods).
This one focuses on how easily your child can be soothed during a tantrum. Some children will be able to regulate their emotions after just a cuddle or a promise of ice cream while other children will remain upset for much longer.
Is your child curious or cautious when meeting new people and in new situations? Children with an easy temperament will usually jump into a new environment with zero hesitation while others are not able to do this quite so easily.
This is similar to the one above but it refers to how they handle change or speedbumps in their routine, not just in new situations but in general.
For example, your child may be used to using the green cup but what happens when this cup is dirty and you give him the blue cup? Is he able to accept it and move on? Or does this cause a meltdown?
Intensity is all about their emotions, both positive and negative. How does your child react to feeling sad? Angry? Happy? Are there a lot of tears, a lot of screams of excitement or are the reactions more mellow? Some children are a lot more dramatic than others.
Overall, is your child a pretty positive little thing? Generally, sees the glass half full? Or is there a bit of pessimism there?
How is your child handling a challenge? Are they able to keep trying, even after they don’t succeed or do they get frustrated and want to give up?
Knowing your children’s temperaments and why it matters
There are several quizzes you can take to determine children’s temperaments but you can also simply think about the above traits and where your child fits in.
Once you know your child’s temperament type, it’s a lot easier to see things from their point of view and to understand why they act the way they do in certain situations.
I’ve had three babies – all three have different temperaments. My firstborn is the ‘easy’ child. My second born is the ‘slow to warm’ child and my third is the ‘difficult’ (ugh, that word) child.
While I try to raise the three of them similarly, knowing my children’s temperaments does mean I respond to them a little differently.
With my firstborn, I could tell him we were leaving and he’d be ready. With my secondborn, I’d need to explain where we were going and how I would be right there before she’d be good to go. With my third born, I need to account for the fact that she needs 15 extra minutes to try on three different outfits and will probably complain about a bump in her sock.
With my firstborn, I would watch him charm the pants out of everyone at parties as he’d get up on the dance floor without a worry in the world. With my second born, she would dance, as long as I danced right next to her. My third born will dance too, but only if she likes the music. And if she doesn’t, well don’t even think about dancing!
In so many situations I’ve noticed how temperament can completely transform the situation. Even something simple like watching a movie will be different. My firstborn, for example, could sit and watch an entire movie with no worries. My third-born can basically make it 15 minutes before she needs to move around or do something else. And that’s perfectly okay.
Every child is different and while, I will admit I dislike the idea of ‘labeling’ each child, knowing what kind of temperament I’m working with has been helpful. Making little adjustments to their routine, based on these needs and traits simply means less chance of a meltdown and less stress for everyone.
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