When babies are born, they come with a range of external and internal characteristics. As the child grows, the physical ones start to influence the child’s life choices. For instance, a long baby who grows into a relatively tall child may do well at sports where height is an advantage. In the same way, temperamental characteristics are often apparent from day one some babies will be placid, others will reach out for new things with enthusiasm, others will be alert to every sound. These characteristics affect the way the child approaches life and are therefore very important for parents to understand.
In his book, “When Anger Hurts Your Kids”, McKay describes nine temperamental traits:
- Activity level eg. passive, very restless, fidgety
- Basic Mood Quality eg. fussy, solemn happy, easygoing
- Approach to new experiences eg. extremely timid, loves exploring new things (can be reckless)
- Rhythmicity eg. very predictable, not predictable (esp. patterns of sleeping and eating)
- Adaptability eg. changeable, inconsistent, inflexible, resists changes
- Sensory threshold eg. may be very sensitive to noise/touch, may need a lot of stimulation to get a reaction.
- Intensity of reaction eg. does not respond much, loud/active expressiveness
- Distractability eg. does not concentrate, cannot stop thinking (worrying)
- Persistence eg. gives up easily, stubborn and will not give up.
Although these temperamental traits are innate they are continually influenced by interaction with each other and the environment. Parents therefore have a critical role in the early years. You need to be aware of your children’s temperaments because you can provide reinforcement for the socially useful traits and supportively guide changes in the negative ones.
This is not as simple as it sounds! These traits each have some kind of value. There are advantages and disadvantages at either end of the ranges. For example, a high degree of persistence is good if a child is learning a new skill but not if they are determined to escape from the back garden! A small child that does not like new experiences may be easier to keep safe because they will stick close to familiar adults but they will not try new foods easily and may be very upset on starting kindergarten.
It can be destructive if the parent unintentionally reinforces difficulties. Imagine what goes on in a child's head when they hear their parent say “Oh, she never concentrates! she forgets all the time!” What will that child learn about herself? It is better to say something that promotes the behaviour you want by giving the child a clear expectation about it - “ She is going to write a reminder for herself so she will not forget”. The important thing is to treat this positively, not to criticise a child or call them naughty for something that is an inbuilt tendency.
Knowing your child’s temperament will enable you to plan behavioural routines that suit them best. A child with high distractability may be helped to concentrate by “chunking” tasks into manageable segments with breaks inbetween. A child that is anxious about new experiences can be introduced gradually to an event with the support of stories and pictures and playing it out at home. A fussy baby with a low sensory threshold (startles easily) will be harder to soothe than an easygoing one who responds well to regular habits, but will still be helped by setting up good routines.
Finally, have a look at your own temperament and see how it interacts with your child’s. What differences and similarities are there? and how do they make your relationship easier or harder?