Children are born with their own ways of responding to the world. This is called temperament. Understanding your child’s temperament can help you choose parenting strategies that nurture your child’s development.
Temperament: what is it?
Temperament is the way children respond to the world.
You can think about your child’s temperament in terms of how much or how little he shows of these three qualities:
Reactivity: this is how strongly children react to things like exciting events or not getting their own way. Reactive children tend to feel things strongly.
Self-regulation: this is how much children can control their behaviour, including the way they show their feelings. It’s also about how much children can control their attention and how persistent they are.
Sociability: this is how comfortable children are when they meet new people or have new experiences.
Each child is born with her own temperament, and you’ve probably been able to describe your child’s temperament since she was a baby. For example, ‘She’s very easygoing’ or ‘She likes her routines’.
Differences in temperament explain why your children might be quite different from one another. For example, your children might be more or less reactive, more or less self-regulated, and more or less sociable.
Adapting your parenting for your child’s temperament
You can’t change your child’s temperament – he is who he is, and that’s great.
But you can adapt your parenting to your child’s individual temperament so that you nurture her development. You can help your child develop the positive parts of her temperament. And you can understand the situations that your child might find hard because of her temperament, and help her learn how to handle these situations.
Here are some ideas for adapting your parenting to your child’s temperament.
Parenting more and less reactive temperaments
If you have a very reactive child, he’s probably a lot of fun when something good happens. But he might also be loud and dramatic when he’s unhappy about something, like not getting his own way. You might need to help this child learn how to respond more calmly – for example, by relaxing and using words for angry feelings.
Reactive children are often also very physically active and might need lots of time outdoors. You can help your child develop by encouraging her to try new sporting activities, for example. But she might also need help winding down, so bedtime relaxation can be a good idea.
A less reactive child is usually easy to get along with, but might be less assertive. You might need to teach this child how to stand up for himself. For example, if you notice situations where your child could be more assertive, you could get him to practise handling those situations differently.
It’s also important to make sure less reactive children aren’t left out of family discussions. For example, ‘Harper, you haven’t said much. Are you happy with that choice of movie?’
Children who are less reactive might also be less physically active. Your less active child will be happiest with lots of opportunities to use her fine motor skills, like doing craft or drawing. But you might need to encourage physical activity. Try a trip to the park to collect leaves for a collage, for example. Or make sure you both walk to the library, instead of driving.
Parenting more and less self-regulated temperaments
Children who find it easier to self-regulate are good at managing their reactions to emotions like frustration or excitement. They can calm down faster after something exciting or upsetting, and they’re less impulsive.
A child who’s very self-regulated might be more able to regulate his attention. He might be likely to keep going with something until he has got it right. He might also be good at coping with setbacks and able to get through tasks like homework without much supervision. But he might be a bit of a perfectionist, so make sure he knows that it’s OK to make mistakes.
If your child has difficulty regulating her attention, she’ll need lots of encouragement to keep going at difficult tasks. These children might switch quickly from one activity to another. They can also be very creative. To help your child focus, you can try rewarding your child or making things fun by using games and creative activities.
Parenting more and less sociable temperaments
If your child is very social he’ll like being around other people, having playdates and doing group activities. But you don’t have to organise playdates and activities for him all the time, because it’s also important for your child to learn to occupy himself.
Children with more sociable temperaments are also usually very adaptable and can cope with changes to routines quite easily. It’s great if you can give your adaptable child lots of new experiences, but make sure she still gets one-on-one time with you.
If your child isn’t very social, he’s probably quite good at playing by himself and might not need much help finding something to do. But you might need to help him with making friends. If he’s not comfortable in groups or at parties, for example, you could try asking just one or two friends for a playdate at your house or the park.
If your less sociable child isn’t very adaptable she’ll like having a regular routine, and might not cope well with changes. This can make it easy for you to plan things around her routine, but your child might also need help coping with changes or transitions.
Your child’s temperament might be different from yours. Some parents find that it’s easier to understand and care for a child whose temperament is similar to theirs. For example, if you like predictability, you might find it easy to care for a baby who needs regular sleeps. But if you like being able to do things whenever you want, it might take you a while to get used to your child’s liking for routine.
How temperament can change
You might see some changes in your child’s temperament as your child becomes more mature. This happens as your child’s experiences affect the way he behaves in different situations.
For example, a child who used to be very distracted at school might become an adult who can concentrate well in business meetings. This might be because she has developed more motivation as she has matured, or because she has learned strategies to manage her distraction.