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How Temperament Affects Parents, Children, and Family Life

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By Barbara Keogh, Ph.D.

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.

Comments from readers

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