Advice Column, Parenting

Understanding Temperament

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Temperament is defined as an individual’s behavioural style and characteristic way of responding. Therefore, it is how the child, adolescent or adult usually acts and consists of a variety of traits. Parents all over the world will have noticed that, if they have several children, each child is “different”. The differences are usually attributed to the child’s temperament (which some people also refer to as their “personality”).

Researchers have paid particular attention to babies where they have noticed that some infants are born with certain characteristics, for instance, some babies are more active and constantly move their little bodies, whilst others are tranquil and yet others explore their environment at great length. In addition, some babies respond warmly to people whilst others fret and fuss. In essence, the suggestion is that individuals are born with a certain temperament which stays relatively the same throughout their lives. Psychiatrists, Stella Thomas and Alexander Chess, believe that there are three basic clusters of temperament namely “easy”, “difficult” and “slow to warm up”.

An “easy” baby is generally in a positive mood, establishes regular routines and adapts easily to new experiences.

A “difficult” baby has a predisposition to react negatively and cries frequently. Routines that are supposed to be consistent are irregular and the “difficult” baby usually accepts new experiences gradually.

A “slow-to-warm up” baby has a low activity level and can be somewhat negative. Low intensity of mood is also common and their ability to adapt is lowered.

Various dimensions make up these three basic clusters of temperament namely:

Activity level (the degree of energy and/or movement for example, the difference between a child who is constantly on the go, fidgets and squirms in comparison to the child who is able to sit for long periods of time without complaining).

Approach or Withdrawal (how new people are approached and situations are managed for example, whether a child is eager to try new things and make new friends or is there a tendency for the child to be cautions and taking their time to warm up to new people).

Adaptability to change (the ease to which the child tolerates changes to routines, in other words is the child flexible with the ability to “go with the flow” and is not bothered by changes to his/her routines in comparison to the child who thrives on routine and who would be likely to get distressed when there are changes to his/her routines).

Predominant quality of mood (the degree to which the child’s moods and general disposition are either positive or negative, namely are they optimists or pessimists. The child with the positive mood is likely to laugh and smile more readily and easily than the child with the negative mood who is more is likely to cry, whine and complain).

Distractibility/Attention Span/Persistence (the degree to which a child can be distracted, for example, is the child easily distracted by many things in his/her environment or is the child able to focus. Persistence implies whether a child perseveres with a task or has a tendency to give up easily).

Rhythmicity (the regularity of eating, sleeping etc., therefore does the child have a biological rhythm that is regular and predictable or not).

Sensitivity to stimuli (the degree to which a child is sensitive or not. For example is the child sensitive to noise, bright lights, clothing labels and so forth or is he/she able to easily ignore external stimuli).

Intensity (the degree to which mood is expressed when happy, unhappy etc. Some children display their emotions without hesitation in other words everybody will know that the child is sad or happy and they will have no difficulty crying in-front of the whole class whilst other children are thoughtful and mild and tend to keep their feelings “inside”).

Thomas and Chess further believe that temperament is a stable characteristic of newborns that comes to be shaped and modified by the child’s later experiences in later life.

Why is important to take cognisance of children’s temperament?

When you take your child to a child psychologist they will probably ask you ‘how your child is like’, in other words what their temperament is. This has a variety of implications for play therapy and parental guidance. The child psychologist will usually work with what suits the individual child and help him or her with the coping resources which will be the most effective for his/her temperament. The child psychologist also works with the parents’ temperament in order to facilitate discipline difficulties etc. Thus, a child who for example falls in the category of expressing their emotions intensely like crying hysterically over something perceived to be relatively small will have different needs to the child who is anxious when meeting new people. How parents and other caregivers react to the aforementioned scenarios will also have implications for the child.

In addition, being cognisant of a child’s temperament is also very important when they have to undergo an educational or developmental assessment by a psychologist. Children for example, who are naturally busy (the level of activity) and are very curious (distractibility/attention span) are sometimes diagnosed as having a disorder such as ADD/ADHD when in fact those characteristics are merely part of their temperament.

If parents are aware of their child’s temperament they can provide activities that work with their child’s temperament which they will enjoy. A child can also be disciplined in ways that “fit” his/her nature. It is also important for teachers and other caregivers to understand a child’s temperament so that their learning is facilitated by what suits them. Temperament affects all aspects of a child’s life such as how they learn, how they play and how they interact with others and should never be overlooked.

Sandton Psychology Centre offers numerous psychological services for children. All assessments are covered including school readiness, educational and developmental evaluations. A career assessment was especially designed for adolescents and adults by the Centre’s Counselling Psychologist, Deane Sutic. Play therapy/child counselling is also offered by our professional and experienced psychologists for a variety of reasons such as anxiety, divorce, anger management, low self-esteem, chronic illnesses etc.

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