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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:

  • biologically based,
  • evident early in life, and
  • characteristic of an individual in many situations and over time.

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.

Comments from readers

"Very interesting article. I wish my parents had read this when I was a still a kid."