Your Child’s Temperament

Young children are all too often brought to family therapists or pediatricians because their parents are concerned about their unusual behavior. Difficulty toilet training, biting other children, intense or long lasting tantrums, and other concerns about behavior are not necessarily signs of a serious disorder.

Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess wrote a book in 1996 that identifies nine distinct dimensions reflecting differences in temperament that influence how children respond to the world around them. Understanding these may better help you to understand your child and figure out strategies for coping better with your child’s temperament.

ACTIVITY measures the amount of physical energy a child puts into behavior and daily activities. An active infant moves around a lot, even when sleeping. These children prefer more active kinds of play over quiet activities such as reading. Many resist sleeping and fall asleep only when they’re exhausted. Parents need to notice what works when they are trying to calm an active child at bedtime.

INTENSITY refers to the level of energy a child puts into self-expression – the amount of volume and drama in the child’s life. Intense children express themselves with great vigor and gusto. Older kids speak in extremes; today was THE BEST or THE WORST day ever. When they are in a good mood they can be delightfully enthusiastic about something. When in a bad mood a negative reaction from a parent can unleash a major tantrum, abusive back-talk, threats of violence, or threats of running away. Parents of intense children need to learn how to not escalate with them. You should speak in a matter-of-fact tone of voice with them. After an eruption is over, try to help them learn more appropriate ways of expressing themselves that will be less offensive to others around them.

SENSITIVITY is a measure of a child’s sensory threshold. A child low in sensitivity is better equipped to handle a stimulating situation, such as crowds or shopping. A child high in sensitivity has a low tolerance for exciting or stimulating situations, and will be prone to meltdowns. They over-react to physical stimuli such as sights, sounds, taste, smell, and touch. Sensible accommodations to help sensitive children can make coping easier for the child. (ex: learning when to turn down the volume)

REGULARITY measures how predictable or unpredictable a child’s biological functions are, such as hunger, fatigue, or bowel movements. Irregular children will rarely do anything with any predictability. Parents should resist nagging a child about eating with everyone else. Instead, try making healthy snacks and food available for when they ask for it. Children who are more irregular may handle chaos and spontaneity better than children who are very regular and do better in predictable and structured environments.

PERSISTENCE/FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE measures a child’s ability to complete a task in the face of obstacles. Children with low frustration tolerance tend to give up easily when something doesn’t go easily. Infants with poor frustration tolerance do not like to be left alone. Children who are low in frustration tolerance can be helped to increase their persistence by gradually stretching out the adult response time to their children’s demands for help. With older kids, try breaking tasks down into smaller and easier pieces. Encourage them to do something until they can complete it. Children with high frustration tolerance can persist in the face of difficulties and are more comfortable entertaining themselves. They sometimes find it difficult to walk away from something unfinished. You can help by giving them advance warnings. Ex: dinner is in five minutes, or, you can finish right after your bath.

DISTRACTIBILITY measures a child’s tendency to be diverted by noise, interruptions, and other things going on around them. Highly distractible children are acutely aware of everything that’s going on around them. Simply explaining to a child, “You’re getting distracted” can help them become more aware and regain their focus. Children low in distractibility focus well, even in challenging environments, such as school.

APPROACH/WITHDRAWAL measures an infant’s initial reaction to a new food, person, or situation. Approaching infants tend to have a positive first reaction. These children are often also very active and may go barreling into new situations, sometimes frightening other kids nearby. Helping them to slow down a little is very useful. Withdrawing children have a negative reaction to the first time they experience something. Sometimes they quickly warm to a situation so it’s important not to rush them into things, but let them set the pace at which they assimilate into what is going on.

ADAPTABILITY measures a child’s adjustment to changes and transitions.Highly adaptable children can be taken anywhere, anytime. They can sleep anywhere. As they get older, they are easy going. Children low in adaptability react negatively to changes and need a lot of time before settling into situations. Unexpected situations can arouse strong reactions. Children low in adaptability resist change, and often insist that every detail of daily routines be followed. They frequently are clingy. You can help them feel more in control by giving them simple choices to make. Ex: Would you prefer to brush teeth before or after putting on PJ’s?

MOOD  is a measure of a child’s disposition. Some kids cry a lot. Others smile a lot and are always content. Some tend toward optimistic, others pessimistic. Children who are more serious may have an analytical way of looking at things. If they tend toward pessimism or negativity, you can use their analytical perspective to your advantage. Speaking in a measured tone, help them understand what is upsetting them; help them broaden their perspective. Help them see things in new, more adaptive, ways.

Understanding your child’s temperament will go a long way toward helping them fit into a society that is quick to judge harshly behaviors and emotions that are “different”. To the extent that a parent can learn to accept a child for who they are, it greatly helps that child to learn to feel good about being themselves.


The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, 2002

Understanding Your Child’s Temperament by William Carey,MD, 1997

Know Your Child by Stella Chess,MD & Alexander Thomas,MD, 1997

The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, 2001

The Difficult Child by Stanley Turecki,MD, 2000

source: Psychotherapy Networker

Published by

Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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