Parent Corner: Temperament Traits

by KAREN COREKIN-DeLaMER, Education and Community Relations Coordinator, Northern Door Children’s Center

We’ve all heard someone say, “Oh, that’s just her temperament” or, “He’s just being temperamental.” But what is temperament? Is it something children are born with that remains static, or something that develops with them?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the word “temperament” describes “a child’s emotional style and how easily they adapt to situations.” In general, a person’s temperament remains the same throughout their life, but factors like environment, health and interactions with other people can affect it.

I’ve always thought temperament is like a lottery. When a child is born, their temperament might be very similar to that of one or both parents, or it could be completely different. Understanding a child’s temperament goes a long way towards understanding how they function in and react to their world. 

Here is a quick rundown of the basic temperament traits. As you read, see which of these fit your child.

  • Activity Level. This refers to a child’s level of physical activity, either high or low. A child with a high level of activity needs to be busy and on the move, often switching activities to stay engaged. These children find it challenging to sit or remain still. A child with a low level of activity will gravitate toward quieter activities and find it easier to sit and stay focused on a task.
  • Biological Rhythms. This temperament trait involves how a child’s internal drives function. Children with regular rhythms tend to prefer to eat, sleep and go to the bathroom at about the same times every day. Children with irregular rhythms tend to have different needs every day, making it more challenging to stick to a regular schedule.
  • Sensitivity and Intensity of Reaction. This denotes how a child perceives and reacts to external stimuli. Children who are highly sensitive tend to react strongly to changes in the environment like loud noises, bright lights, rough textures and large groups of people. They may be troubled by things that go unnoticed by others. Children with low sensitivity can more easily cope with environmental fluctuations and keep going.
  • Adaptability/Approach and Withdrawal. Children can be highly adaptable or slow to adapt. A highly adaptable child can easily adjust to meeting new people, changing activities and entering unknown situations. A child who is slow to adapt may struggle with transitions and people they don’t know, withdrawing if there are changes in their environment. 
  • Persistence. This trait tells us how easily a child can start and stick with a particular task. A child with high persistence often enjoys the challenge of trying new things and working to master a new skill or idea. A child with low persistence may need more encouragement to complete a task if it becomes difficult or frustrating. 
  • Distractibility. A highly distractible child may have a harder time staying focused on a task if there is too much noise or activity happening around them. A child with low distractibility finds it easier to filter out distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.  
  • Mood. A child’s mood is their general emotional outlook. Some children are naturally positive. These children tend to be easier to please and more even-keeled in their interactions with others. A child with a more negative mood is harder to comfort and please when interacting with others.

The most important thing to understand about children’s temperaments is that there is nothing inherently “good” or “bad” about these different traits. Temperaments simply are, and they represent the way a child or any person moves through and functions in the world. Children can have a varied combination of the different traits; this is what makes each child a unique individual. 

Temperament is a very broad topic. Next time, I’ll offer some ideas and suggestions for parenting children with different temperament traits and supporting them as they navigate their environments. Until then, see if you notice which of the temperament traits are recognizable in the children in your world.

Karen Corekin-DeLaMer holds degrees in elementary, special and early-childhood education. She has been a teacher, administrator and parent educator since 1984 and is the education and community-relations coordinator for Northern Door Children’s Center in Sister Bay. Email your questions to her at [email protected].