Nature AND Nurture: Understanding Your Child's Temperament

Last month we shared a broad overview of social and emotional development during your child’s first years of life. This month, we’ll begin exploring the social and emotional mechanisms that guide healthy growth. Let’s begin with temperament.
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Temperament can be defined as the way a young child acts and responds to different situations, caregivers, and strangers.

Specifically, temperament refers to behavioral tendencies that are not due to parenting, caregiving, or other early experiences. Rather they are present from birth and scientists believe they are genetically based.

Natural Differences

Researchers have created three categories of temperament. (Not every child falls under one of these three, but a majority of children do.) Babies who quickly fall into regular eating and sleeping habits and adapt well to new environments and people are considered Easy. Those who are more withdrawn, slower to adapt, and regularly exhibit a negative mood are described at Slow to Warm Up. Infants that are consistently fussy, don’t develop food and sleep patterns, and have the most trouble with change are labeled Difficult.

Think of it this way: Every child born into the world brings along certain set of traits, a sort of blueprint for their personality. As a parent, you can’t change this design, but you can ensure that it is carried out with care and quality.

For example, having a difficult temperament has been linked to later behavioral and social problems. But this risk is greatly reduced in children who experience sensitive, responsive parenting and caregiving.

Nurturing Success

In the first weeks and months of life with your baby, you’ll learn all about their natural temperament. It’s important for caregivers to understand two things.

  • First, you can’t change temperamental traits.
  • Second, how you deal with the more difficult aspects of your child’s behavior can either create a cycle of conflict, or help steer him toward more positive social and emotional behaviors.

When difficult behaviors arise, caregivers should take a sensitive rather than forceful approach. Remember that the goal is to help your child manage his feelings, not change them.

Being consistent and remaining calm will help your child avoid feeling conflicted or ashamed, which is big part of what triggers volatile eruptions.

Understanding temperament helps parents navigate children’s natural differences. Caregivers and parents who understand temperament are less likely to blame themselves or their child for reactions that are normal for a given temperament. With a little understanding, parents can anticipate issues and avoid frustrating their children and themselves.