WHAT IS TEMPERAMENT?
Did you know that each person is born with some innate and stable traits? These traits are called temperament.
Temperament is the nature, (genetic) foundation for early personality formation; temperament interacts with the
environment – the nurture that parents provide, and personality begins to form! Temperament is the “hard wiring” in
the brain - the stable behavior profiles and moods observed in the early years.
In general, there are three basic categories of temperament: (Thomas, Chess & Birch longitudinal study)
1) The Slow- to - warm up (SWU) or Sensitive child (first picture) withdraws or is slow to approach new situations,
and moves slowly from this initial withdrawal to a more positive approach, or may retain fearfulness, which can seem
like anxiety. This can be a difficult temperament to parent or care for because they are often not forthcoming with
their feelings and thoughts. This group comprises about 15-20% of children.
2) The Spirited child (second picture) tends to react with intensity, is grouchy or fussy much of the time, has
irregular biologic functions, and may be easily distracted. This group comprises about 10-15% of children, but has
the most ramifications for society because they are often the ones in trouble in school, legally, and socially and will
often get " a diagnosis".
3) The Easy child (third picture) has a pleasant and positive mood in most situations, is generally regular in biologic
functions, has an approach response to most new situations, and adapts quickly to change. This group comprises
about 45-50% of children.
There are about 15-20% of children whose temperament cannot be categorized so easily.
The nine dimensions of temperament measured on the Carey Temperament Scales:
approach/withdrawal to new people/events
adaptability or flexibility
intensity (the loudness / boisterousness levels used)
mood (positive, negative or in-between?)
persistence or attention span
sensory threshold (sensitivity to sounds, lights, clothing, foods, etc.).
Temperament shapes how (response and reaction) a child does something, not what they do.
Around ages 10 - 12, temperament traits can be more difficult to ascertain because the socialization process has
often covered up the innate tendencies of response and reaction; however, the footprint is still there, and current
research has shown continuation of some temperament traits as one ages. You’ve probably known an adult or two
who has searched for a better match of occupation, mate, etc.
WHY IS TEMPERAMENT AN IMPORTANT CONCEPT?
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Temperament knowledge can be considered “prevention”
because it helps parents adjust their parenting style and arrange their environment to the temperament needs of the
child, promoting harmony and well-being in the family.
Encouragement of your child’s awareness and appreciation of their temperament is a foundation for self esteem,
and a protection against mental illness. Conflicts between a child’s temperament and his/her environment (the
goodness-of-fit) occupy much of the considerable ground between normal behavior and major childhood
WHAT is the GOODNESS OF FIT CONCEPT? “All illness can be viewed as a failure of adaptation, an imbalance
between environmental stress and coping capacity.” (Dr. Jerome Frank “A Conceptual Framework for Psychotherapy” 1991)
“Goodness of fit” refers to how well the parents’ and child’s temperaments fit and harmonize. A child needs
positive attention, affection, stability, and supervision. If the parent's temperament and the child’s temperament are
at “odds”, this “poor fit” may produce problems.
A normal person in a normal environment can still produce pathology. Temperament knowledge and use of a
corrective environment (different parenting strategies, etc) can help eliminate unnecessary “labels” that are given to
a child who is “different” or “not average” but still “normal”. There are no abnormal temperaments, only poor fits
with a parent/caregiver’s temperament, or parenting beliefs and expectations. This may result in stressful interactions
with a child. A trait considered “difficult” when the child is two years old, such as high persistence, is usually
considered an asset as a child enters school.
A child with a “challenging” temperament (either spirited or slow-to-warm up / sensitive) is more likely than a child
with an “easy-going” temperament to be a target of negative responses from their parents / others. Depressed and
irritable parents are more likely to show negative behaviors toward their children. Coercive cycles of mutually
antagonistic behavior may begin between parent and child, which can become a basis for giving a child a
SCHOOL – Remember, prevention is the key – temperament knowledge is prevention!
In school, the traits that influence doing well are the temperament traits of
* high persistence
* long attention span
* high adaptability
* and positive mood.
Peer rejected and neglected children were rated low on these traits. Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Conduct
Disorder, or ADHD are common diagnoses for these children. In preschool, children with easy temperaments have
more positive and interactive relationships with friends and peers, and are more behaviorally adjusted in terms of
cooperation and persistence.
In the book “Genius Denied”, it is reported that “20% of dropouts are gifted, but quit school because they are
unchallenged, ignored, and frustrated. Many get pegged as having social or emotional issues because they cannot
relate to their peers”. Often, this is due to mismanagement of temperament.
ADHD - TEMPERAMENT and the ADHD DIAGNOSIS
Many professionals believe ADHD is over-diagnosed, and I agree. A study in Journal American Academy of Child
& Adolescent Psychiatry provides support for the theory that a difficult temperament in the early years may be
associated with an ADHD diagnosis, and depression as the child ages (2003; 42:184-192). There are overlapping
dimensions between the two situations. Counter to the dominant view of the increased incidence, one could look at
temperament variables that contribute to the concept; when there is a poor fit of temperament with the environment,
this diagnosis may increase.
A plausible alternative explanation of what is called ADHD may be a continuation of temperament traits that make
inattentive and busy children seem dysfunctional. The requirements of the “homogenized classroom" are often
incompatible with a child‘s temperament. Teachers appreciate knowing and incorporating temperament information on
their students. Slight adjustments can make big improvements for the child, the class, the teacher – and home.
Dr. Stanley Turecki, a child Psychiatrist who writes extensively about temperament, suggests we ask two
important questions before an ADHD diagnosis is given:
Is there a significant impairment in function?
Is the behavior independent of context, i.e. does it happen in all environments, or just one?
ASSESSMENTS AND CONSULTATIONS
Questions become not, “How do I treat this child’s disorder?”, but more appropriately, “How do I promote his
adaptation and enhance his self-esteem? How is this child suffering?” I want to know how compatible a child
is with his environment (parents/family/school/community) and whether that can be improved, what the child’s
strengths and talents are, and how they can be mobilized to enhance his self knowledge and ultimately grasping what
type of environment he/she needs in order to thrive.
I use the Carey Temperament Scales to assess a child’s temperament. Dr. William Carey is one
of the early pioneers in longitudinal studies on temperament. This computer-scored
questionnaire gives the parent a two-page print-out with very specific information on their child’s
temperament, as well as suggestions for understanding and disciplining their child. I assist in
that process with a consultation. For parents, I use the Carey Adult Scales. Often, parents want to
know their own temperament, so they can make adjustments in their parenting style that will help
both them and their child.
For additional information, see www.b-di-com.
"Understanding Your Child's Temperament". William B. Carey, with Jablow, M., New York, Macmillan. 1997.
"Raising Your Spirited Child". Mary Sheedy Kurcinka: New York. Harper Collins. 1991.
"The Difficult Child". Stanley Turecki, M.D. & Tonner L., Bantam, 2000.
"The Challenging Child". Stanley Greenspan, M.D. Perseus Books, 1995.
"The Temperament Perspective: Working with Children’s Behavioral Style". Jan Kristal, Brookes Publishing, 2005.
"The Highly Sensitive Person". Elaine Aron, Broadway Books, 1996. This book is written about and for adults but
can give a parent a great perspective on the sensitive and slow to warm up child.
Technical / Research oriented books:
"The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are". Daniel Siegel. 1999.
"Molecules of Emotion". Candace Pert.
"Vulnerability to Psychopathology: Risk across the lifespan". Ingram, R.E. & Price, J.M. Guilford Press, 2001.
"Affect Regulation and the Development of Psychopathology". Bradley, S.J., Guildford Press, 2000.