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How Temperament Affects Parents, Children, and Family Life

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By Barbara Keogh, Ph.D.

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.

Comments from readers

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