How Temperament Affects Parents, Children, and Family Life

Don't assume family friction is a result of your child having  LD or AD/HD.  It could be due to his temperament -- and yours! 

By Barbara Keogh, Ph.D.

The Andersons have two sons: Josh, age 11, and Ryan, age 9. Both boys are bright, achieve well in school, are involved in sports, and have many friends. Yet their parents wonder how two boys in the same family could be so different. Josh moves at a slow pace, is easy going, adaptable, and "laid back."  Ryan is energetic, intense, quick responding, and races through life at top speed. Josh fits his parents' lifestyle well, but they are puzzled and frequently upset and irritated by Ryan's high activity and intensity, and find his behavior intrusive and disruptive. The differences in behavior between the two boys reflect individual characteristics of temperament, and these differences are powerful contributors to the ups and downs of everyday life in the Anderson household. 

What is Temperament?

Temperament describes individual differences which are:

Differences in temperament are seen in infants.  Some are fussy, sensitive to noises, easily startled and upset, and have irregular eating and sleeping patterns; others are calm and mellow and quickly adapt to regular eating and sleeping routines.  Many eight-year-olds are energetic, intense, and quick responding, whether they are eating, playing, or talking with friends. Others have a deliberate tempo, are reflective, and take time to adjust to new situations, new foods, and new people. Parents who have several children recognize differences in persistence, distractibility, and energy levels, and are aware that one child may be typically outgoing and enthusiastic, while his brother is shy and "low-key." It is especially important to recognize individual differences in temperament when a child has learning or attention problems, as parents and teachers need to figure out the reasons for a child's behavior.

What Research Tells Us about Temperament

Researchers have developed a number of specific definitions of temperament (Keogh 2003; Kristal, 2005), but the one by psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (1977) is especially relevant for parents when thinking about how their children and families interact. They defined temperament "as a general term referring to the "how" of behavior. It differs from ability, which is concerned with the "what" and "how well" of behaving, and from motivation, which accounts for why a person does what he is doing. Thomas and Chess identified nine dimensions of temperament based on their own clinical expertise and on their research with children and families. These dimensions provide a framework for describing individual differences in temperament, and are captured in Jan Kristal's (2005) definitions of the nine dimensions.

Temperament Dimensions (Kristal, 2005)

Sensory Threshold describes the level of stimulation necessary to evoke a response.

Activity Level is a child's general level of motor activity when awake and asleep.

Intensity is the reactive energy of response, whether happy, sad, or angry; it describes how expressive a child is.

Rhythmicity determines the predictability of bodily functions such as appetite, sleep/wake cycle, and elimination patterns.

Adaptability describes how easily a child adjusts to changes and transitions.

Mood is the basic quality of disposition. It may be more positive (a happy or cheerful child) or more negative (a cranky or serious child).

Approach/Withdrawal is the child's initial response to novelty: new places, situations, or things.

Persistence describes the ability to continue an activity when it is difficult or when  faced with obstacles; it describes "stick-to-itiveness."

Distractibility is the ease with which the child can be distracted by extraneous stimulation, or, conversely, his level of concentration or focus.

Thomas and Chess also described three patterns or constellations of temperament characteristics that influence parent-child relationships and family life.

These temperament types are consistent with the results of our research at UCLA (Keogh, 2003). We found that Thomas and Chess's nine dimensions described similar clusters of individual children's behavior, especially in regard to activity level, adaptability, approach/withdrawal, intensity, and mood.

How Temperament Influences Family Life

Individual differences in temperament or behavioral styles are important in family life in several ways because they affect the nature of the interactions among family members. Some children adapt quickly and easily to family daily routines and get along well with their siblings. Others, especially highly active, intense and "prickly" children have a more difficult time adjusting to everyday demands, and their interactions with parents and siblings may lead to friction and stress. Consider how an active, impulsive child can bother an older sibling who is trying to complete a school project, or how a distractible child who is low in persistence can frustrate parents' efforts to get him to complete his homework or to finish a household chore. 

It is important to note that parents, like children, also differ in temperament. Some are quick reacting and intense, while others are quiet and slow to respond; some are flexible and adaptable, and others are not. The "mix" between parents' and children's temperaments has a strong effect on family life, sometimes leading to positive interactions, sometimes to frustrations, and sometimes even to conflicts. It is interesting to note that parents also differ in the expectations they have about their children's behavior, and how they view and tolerate differences in temperaments. For example, certain constellations of temperament such as high activity, intensity, and persistence may be tolerated and valued in boys, but not in girls. Conversely, shyness and sensitivity may be viewed as acceptable in girls, but not in boys.

This leads to the notion of "goodness of fit," which can be a useful framework for helping parents figure out how temperament affects relationships in the family. "Goodness of fit" refers to the match or mismatch between a child and other family members. For example, a high-activity, intense child like Ryan may upset and irritate a quiet, slow-paced, reflective parent. An active, quick-responding parent may be impatient with a slow-to-warm-up child, whom the parent may see as lazy or indifferent. Sparks may fly when both parent and child are intense and quick responding. Life in a family is not the same for all children, and temperament is one of the ingredients in the "fit" between child and family.

Temperament and Learning Disabilities

Individual differences in temperament can be especially important when a child has learning or developmental problems. A child with learning disabilities (LD) often presents extra demands for parents and siblings, which upset the routines of family life: extra help each night with homework, twice weekly trips to the tutor, continuing visits to school to meet with teachers, to say nothing of needs for supervision and intervention in squabbles with siblings. It is easier for a parent to respond to extra demands when a child is positive in mood, adaptable, and approaching, than when he is negative, withdrawing, and easily irritated. As is the case with all children, the interactions between a child with LD and his parents and siblings are affected by his temperament, especially when there is a poor "fit" between a child's temperament and the family environment.

Temperament can also contribute to children's patterns of adjustment over time. Pediatrician William Carey (1998) suggested that a child may come to rely on particular temperament-based behaviors which result in general maladaptive coping strategies that don't serve the child's best interests. For example, a shy and withdrawing child with LD may come to rely on withdrawal as a general way to cope with many stressful situations, including academic tasks. A child with LD whose low persistence is temperament-based may rely on a strategy of giving up in situations when challenged.

It is important for parents to understand that there is no single temperament profile that characterizes all children with learning disabilities. Like other children, a child with LD has his own unique and individual temperament. This is not to imply that LD and temperament may not overlap, because in many instances there are similarities between the signs of LD and the characteristics of difficult temperaments, especially in traits of distractibility, intensity, and low persistence. Too often, however, temperament characteristics of a child with LD are assumed to be part of the LD itself, rather than an individual variation in behavioral style. This confusion tends to over-emphasize the idea of disability, and overlooks the individuality of a child with LD.  When you can see and interpret a child's behavior through a temperament "lens" it helps you sort out what are signs of LD and what is temperament.

How Can Understanding Temperament Improve Family Life?

Understanding your child's temperament provides a fresh way of thinking about child and family relationships.  First, it reframes how you interpret your child's behavior and affects the way you think about the reasons for his behavior. For example, you might view an active, energetic, and approaching child who is into everything as "exuberant," rather than as "hyper" and intrusive.  Or you might see a shy and slow-to-warm-up child as "sensitive" and thoughtful, rather than as unfriendly and unmotivated. Your response as a parent is affected by how you interpret your child's behavior. For example, if you see disruptive behavior as purposeful, you are apt to be irritated, even angry, and to respond negatively or punitively. When you see your child's behavior as temperament-related rather than as due to willful misbehavior, you can reduce your negative reactions.

Second, it is important to emphasize that thinking in temperament terms does not excuse a child's unacceptable behavior, but does provide direction for responding to it.  As parents often learn, many small accommodations in family life can reduce tensions. A slow-paced child may need extra time in the mornings to get ready for school and to "dawdle" over breakfast.  Providing an extra half an hour in the morning, rather than continual reminders to "hurry up," can be a small price to pay for a peaceful time before school.  A highly persistent child who is deeply involved in a drawing project may need to be reminded several times at regular intervals that the dinner hour or bedtime is close.

Third, thinking about your child's behavior through the lens of temperament helps you anticipate when and where there are apt to be problems. The old adage that forewarned is forearmed is relevant here.  A shy and Slow-to-warm-up child does not like surprises or sudden changes in routines. He is comfortable when the daily routines of family life are orderly and consistent, and he needs time to adapt when those routines are upset. A change in a parent's work schedule, a new babysitter, even a change in the time to eat dinner can be stressful. A Slow-to-warm-up child is more comfortable when he knows ahead of time what changes will occur, and when, and when he is given time to adapt. Similarly, if you can anticipate when and where a highly active, intense, and distractible child will have problems, you can reduce the likelihood of negative outbursts. A long car trip without frequent stops and interesting activities has a high probability of leading to problem behavior. Planning ahead is especially important when traveling with a child with this kind of temperament.

Family life is made up of countless, continuing interactions which affect the quality of our daily lives, and individual differences in temperament among family members are important factors in determining whether those interactions are positive and pleasant  or "rocky" and stressful.  So, as a parent, it is important to recognize individual differences in your child's temperament and to help him understand the impact of his temperament on other family members. It is also important that you know yourself and recognize your own unique temperament, and that you are aware how your behavioral style affects daily life in your family. Awareness of individual differences in temperament provides a positive way to prevent and manage problems that can result from a mismatch of behavioral styles within your family.

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