If you’re looking to help your child improve his or her behavior then there’s something very important that you need to consider: his or her temperament. By temperament, I mean the particular way in which your child is wired to respond to things like stress, change, and feelings. Understanding your child’s temperament helps you create solutions for behavior problems that are more individualized and effective.
Temperament is inborn, meaning we all come into the world with our own unique set of traits that help us navigate the world around us. Our temperament influences how we think, feel and react to life’s triumphs and challenges. Essentially, our temperament creates a set of response traits or predispositions in all of us to behave in certain ways. If we can start to understand how our kids are wired to respond, we then have a powerful means to both predict their behavior in difficult situations and also begin to create solutions. Another way to think about it is that your child’s temperament is essentially a map of how his or her particular nervous system works. If we can become familiar with our kids’ individual map, then we’re in much better shape to understand and then help them with their behaviors. If you look carefully at any situation where you have behavior that you don’t want, you can see your child’s temperament at work behind the scenes. What are the main temperament traits? The most common ones are:
Sensitivity. This refers to how finely-tuned you are to the world around you. Kids who are highly sensitive are taking in everything and are easily overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and chaos of the outside world. The brightness of fluorescent lights, the sounds of traffic, and the smells of foods are all experienced more intensely by the sensitive person’s acute nervous system. When the sensations are pleasant, the experience is wonderful, but when they’re not, it can be torturous to endure. Sensitive people tend to be cautious and slow to warm because they need to take in the heightened flow of data slowly, to protect against the possibility of overload. When a sensitive child reaches overload, he or she may get disorganized, silly, withdrawn, or regress into a state of rage. Sensitive adults get overloaded too, and tend to get anxious, frazzled, and depleted when it all gets too much.
Intensity. Intensity is also sometimes called emotional reactivity. Kids high in this trait tend to be dramatic. Their feelings come on quickly and intensely, and when they want you to know about their experience, they do it with extra energy. When a toe is stubbed or a disappointment encountered, the intense child may react as if it were the end of the world. Intense kids often get accused of over-reacting, which is an unfair label because it assumes that they have the choice not to feel so strongly. This is simply not true. The reactions of intense kids are a product of their nervous system’s wiring and not simply drama for effect. Parents need to remember that intense kids need to release the flood of feelings that swiftly overtakes their bodies. These kids are wired to react quickly, and they can be set off easily. They need help containing their behavior during emotional episodes, as well as the understanding that this is how they are wired to express both their positive and negative emotional states.
Persistence. Persistent kids are goal-driven. They get an idea in their head and have a very hard time letting it go. Persistent kids are tenacious and go after what they want. If they don’t get it the first time, they are committed to repeating the request or just digging in and trying harder until it pays off. When a very persistent child decides, for instance, that he or she wants to become a professional soccer player, they head out into the yard and practice and practice and then practice some more. It’s hard to curb persistent kids’ enthusiasm. However, this also applies to their protests. When a persistent kid decides that she hates the movie the family is thinking about seeing, she will have a very hard time joining in and just going with the flow. In this way, highly persistent kids can be challenging to parent. They can turn potentially productive conversations into endless negotiations or power struggles and can get stuck in their singular vision of how things should go. On a positive note, a high level of persistence is almost always part of a successful professional profile, so the very thing that works against you in family life will likely serve your highly persistent child well in a future career!
Adaptability. The temperament trait of adaptability has to do with how well a child can shift gears, going from one activity or idea to another. Kids who are low in adaptability have a harder time with change. They become rigid and get stuck when it’s time to move on, especially if they’re engaged in an activity they like. Their parents often identify times of transition, such as during the morning or bedtime routines, as the most stressful times they have with their slow to adapt children. Challenging transitions can create a quick mood shift in these kids, as their previously positive outlook is suddenly replaced by a rigid and negative tone. For parents, this can turn an ordinarily peaceful moment into what feels like an instant power struggle. The element of surprise is one of the biggest triggers for this type of kid. Parents quickly learn that letting their child know about upcoming changes far enough ahead of time can mean the difference between a smooth and a rocky transition. Having the low-adaptability child help with planning the day’s schedule is also helpful. This gives them a map of upcoming events and transitions, and also gives them a sense of increased control.
Impulsivity. Impulsivity refers to how well a person can stop and think about his or her choices before reacting. Impulsive kids have lightening-quick nervous systems and make split-second decisions when reacting to things, especially if they feel strongly about something. Impulsive kids are not usually lacking in judgment, meaning that they most often do know right from wrong. Where they get into trouble is in not being able to slow down their reactions enough to consider the right and wrong choice in a situation—they simply react. The evidence for this is that when you talk to an impulsive kid after they make a quick mistake, they almost always know they made a bad choice. This is confusing for parents who often ask “Well, if you knew it was a bad decision, then why did you do it?” Parents can mistakenly give this kind of child a lecture on right and wrong when that’s not the issue. The issue for the impulsive child is slowing down enough to think about the choices they’re making.
Focus. This temperament trait has to do with the child’s ability to filter out potential distractions and stay present and on task. Though this trait is hardwired into each of us, it is also variable from person to person and also changes with age and situational context. All kids struggle with distractibility at times. Things like fatigue, hunger, or intense feelings can make typically focused kids lose their ability to stay on track. Focus also changes with age, with younger kids having a much harder time staying focused for very long. Parents of kids with low focus often complain of them “not listening”, which is certainly aggravating. The important thing for parents to understand is that it’s important not to confuse listening difficulties that stem from low focus with intentional ignoring. At times it can be hard to know whether your child is blowing you off or having a hard time with focus. When this happens, it’s important to investigate so you don’t mistakenly accuse your child of not listening on purpose when they actually need help staying focused on your request.
Activity Level. Highly active kids have a hard time slowing down. Their nervous systems are hungry for stimulus, and their bodies crave action and movement. Active kids are often born leaders and stars on the sports field. Their need for action combined with their will to explore takes them to the cutting edge of experience and often makes other kids want to follow their adventurous spirits. Active kids feel their best when they’re getting the stimulus they crave, and they suffer when their energy is stifled. Kids who are highly active do everything better when they’re moving, including talking about their behaviors and feelings. When they don’t have outlets for their energy or there isn’t enough action going on, you’ll hear the famous tagline of active kids, “I’m bored.” Boredom is the enemy of active, stimulus-hungry children. It is a state they try to avoid at all costs because it feels so bad for them physically. Like boredom, patience can also be a challenging experience for active kids. They count the seconds until the next stimulating moment, so even a short wait can feel like an eternity to them.
We all have all of these temperament traits wired into us, just at different levels—our own unique temperament profile. Your kids have their own profile too, and it has a big influence on their behavior. Take some time to think about how high or low each of these traits is in your child. Look at typical situations, especially challenging ones, and see how your child’s temperament expresses itself through his or her behavior. After you gain clarity on how your child’s temperament contributes to their behavior, then talk with your child about what you notice. Educate him or her on traits they possess that are particularly high or low and are contributing to difficult moments. Then work with your child to problem-solve these situations for better outcomes. With a clear understanding of your child’s temperament, you’re both much better equipped to begin to understand and resolve behavior issues together.
My very best to you and your family,
For more information on all of the areas listed, including suggestions for help see my new book Better Behavior: Helping Kids Create Change and Improve Relationships. Available in both print and eBook at: Amazon, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo.
Information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute professional advice for any specific medical or psychological condition.