May 31, 2009


Temperament is a largely genetically determined set of characteristics that remain unchanged from birth throughout life. Beginning as early as four months of age, a child’s temperament can be determined. These temperamental traits are largely unchanged throughout life. Understanding temperament is important since these personality traits do not change. A parent needs to understand these dimensions so that the parent can adapt to the child.

Temperament refers to enduring traits of a person’s approach to the world. These dimensions are found in all children across cultures. A child’s temperament is a core element of the child’s personality. Since it is unchangeable, understanding temperament is essential to knowing how to approach your child. What may appear to be a problem may actually be a mismatch between your temperament and that of your child.

1. ACTIVITY LEVEL: Physical motion during sleep, play, work, eating, and other daily activities.
(High or Low; Active or Inactive).

2. REGULARITY: The predicable recurrence of a child’s response to daily events. The rhythm of their body functions such as sleeping, eating, elimination. In school age children, regularity is observed as consistency, organization, or predictability. Is the child orderly with toys and possessions? Is the child’s after-school routine the same each day?
(Predictable or Unpredictable).

3. INITIAL REACTION: The child’s reaction to new people, places, things, foods, and routines. For example, tries new foods, refuses, or looks it over, pokes it, and then tries a bite.
(Bold or Inhibited; Approaching or Cautious).

4. ADAPTABILITY: Like initial reaction, but refers to the child’s long-term adjustment after the initial response. The ease or difficulty with which the child’s first reaction can be changed. How quickly does the child make transitions or adapt to changes in routine? How quickly can the child make a choice? How does the child react to last minute changes?
(Flexible or Rigid; Quick or Gradual).

5. INTENSITY: How much energy the child puts into a response. Is the child loud? How does the child respond to disappointments, praise, failure, surprise, or frustration?
(Intense or mild).

6. MOOD: What is the child’s dominant mood or overall pattern? Is the child generally positive, negative, or in between?
(Positive or Negative).

7. DISTRACTIBILITY: Is the child able to tune out surrounding sights, sounds, or people and continue without interruption or is the child distracted by outside stimuli? This is not the same as persistence. A child can be easily distracted yet return immediately to the task at hand and stick with it until it is completed. How quickly can a baby be soothed?
(Rarely or Often)

8. PERSISTENCY AND ATTENTION SPAN: Persistency is the child’s tendency to stick with an activity despite interruptions or outside distractions. Attention span is demonstrated by how long a child sticks with an activity when there are no interruptions.
(Often or Rarely; Persistent or not; Short or long).

9. SENSITIVITY: Sensory threshold or the amount of stimulation required to get a response. Watch all five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste).
(Nonreactive or Sensitive).


Temperament is composed of nine dimensions. Temperament is easily determined at birth and does not change; it appears to be genetically determined. Temperament can be thought of as one of the basic elements of personality that is not changeable. It is not right or wrong, it just is; although temperaments different than one’s own can seem to be “wrong,” they are not. At the Center we use the Cary Temperament Scales to measure a child’s temperament and provide parents with a report detailing their child’s temperament and the potential strengths and pitfalls that the parent and child may experience. The traits on each continuum are neither good nor bad. However, mismatches between a parent’s and child’s temperament can create discord and problems. The following check list is not meant to replace a professional assessment or to substitute for a reliable and valid test such as the Cary. However, this check list can help you identify areas of match and mismatch between your temperament and that of your child.

The fact that you have temperament traits on the other side of a scale item form your child, or spouse for that matter, does not mean that a problem exists. It merely means that you and your child have different temperaments on that dimension. It does mean that as a parent you do need to be particularly sensitive to that dimension since your proclivities and those of your child are different. However, as a parent it is your responsibility to adapt to these differences and accommodate your child. Knowing that you and your child differ on a dimension of temperament, which is not a changeable dimension of personality, allows the parent to know that he or she must adapt to the child. This also can help a parent realize that when a child is “pushing” your buttons, that it is your issue and not something that your child should be expected to change. When there are significant differences in parent-child temperament, the parent will need to take extra steps to be sure that he or she adapts to the child.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Are there any books for me, a parent, to read?

Arthur Becker-Weidman, PhD said...

A good resource are books by Thomas & Chess, who did some of the original research on Temperament.