Advice Column, Child, Education, Impaq, Parenting, Tween & Teen

How our childhood personality affects us as adults, and why it’s important

  • Impaq
  • Category Advice Column, Child, Education, Impaq, Parenting, Tween & Teen

Much research has been done into how our experiences during childhood shape both our personalities as children and, later in life, as adults. This is an important area of research as it has many implications for parents when it comes to child-rearing, for teachers when it comes to teaching, and for many other people working with children.

How is ‘personality’ defined?

‘Personality’ can be defined as a person’s ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, and interacting with other people. Multiple researchers have determined that there are five primary personality characteristics, known collectively as the Big Five personality traits or the OCEAN model:

  1. Openness: a person’s appreciation for art and adventure, as well as their imagination and curiosity.
  2. Conscientiousness: a person’s ability to discipline themselves, fulfil their duties, and strive for success.
  3. Extraversion: a person’s tendency to experience positive emotions and to seek out the company of other people.
  4. Agreeableness: a person’s inclination to be compassionate, co-operative, and socially harmonious.
  5. Neuroticism: a person’s tendency to experience negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and anger.

How are our personalities shaped?

Our personalities are shaped not only by our genes but also by our environments and personal experiences as children and adolescents. These factors include parenting styles, culture and religion, education, access to resources, and adverse life events such as a parent’s divorce or death. 

Read more on helping children cope with divorce

The development of our personalities begins with our temperaments as infants, which refers to an infant’s mood, energy and activity levels, and emotions. Although temperaments are primarily determined by genetics, they can be affected by other environmental factors, especially an infant’s attachment style, which is the way infants bond with their caregivers. Attachments are secure when caregivers are supportive and insecure when they are neglectful. Children who are securely attached have better life outcomes than children who are insecurely attached. Our personalities are also shaped by our childhood experiences with friendships and other social interactions.

Do our personalities as children affect us as adults?

In short: yes. Research has shown that our personalities as children remain relatively fixed throughout our lives. Four childhood personality traits have been identified as being good predictors of a child’s adulthood personality and life outcomes. These are:

Mastery motivation:

This trait refers to a child’s tendency to approach tasks with enthusiasm and confidence, to strive for success, and to persist in the face of failure. Children who exhibit high levels of this trait go on to be socially competent, rule-abiding academic achievers as adults. 

Read more on how to cope with failure.

Academic conscientiousness:

Similar to mastery motivation and conscientiousness as described by the OCEAN model, this trait assesses a child’s tendency to approach schoolwork seriously, thoroughly, and responsibly. Children who display high levels of academic conscientiousness go on to achieve success both at school and in the workplace.

Surgency:

Similar to extraversion, surgency measures a child’s tendency to be socially involved with others. Children who display high levels of this trait are outgoing, expressive, and self-reliant, and go on to be extremely socially competent as adults, enjoying numerous healthy platonic friendships and romantic relationships.

Agreeableness

Much like the Big Five personality trait, agreeableness in children refers to the generosity, kindness, and consideration they display as children, as well as their co-operation with adults. This trait positively predicts social cohesiveness and career success in adults.

Read more on nurturing good values in children.

Why is any of this important?

The fact that so many factors influence our personalities as children, combined with the fact that our personalities as children persist well into adulthood, means that there are multiple implications for children’s caregivers, whether they be parents/guardians, teachers, or babysitters.

Firstly, a child’s primary caregiver during the first year of their life must be aware that the way in which they care for the child will affect the child later in life. It is vital that such caregivers educate themselves on attachment styles, and how to provide for a child in a healthy, nurturing way without being obsessive or overbearing, which can be as detrimental to a child as a caregiver who is cruel or neglectful, or both.

Secondly, knowing which childhood personality traits are predictors of good life outcomes in adulthood is crucial in setting up a child for success later in life. When a caregiver is aware that a child is displaying behaviour that is not a predictor of good life outcomes, measures can be taken to help the child. Caregivers can enlist the assistance of child psychologists and occupational therapists to help set the child on the right path.

Lastly, caregivers who are conscious of healthy personality characteristics in children can work to nurture those and to reinforce beneficial behaviours. As crucial as corrective measures are for curbing unhealthy behaviour, positive reinforcement is equally as important – if not more important – for promoting healthy behaviour in children.

Read more on rewarding good behaviour.

By being aware of our children’s early childhood needs and their behavioural patterns, we can set them up for success, both in their childhoods and throughout their lives.

By Jacqui Smit

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