The Taconic Counseling Group

Maria Alba-Fisch, Ph.D.

Temperament: Miss or Match

For generations, parents have been comfortable describing their children as having distinct and recognizable patterns of behavior from birth.  Unfortunately, this sometimes had a fatalistic implication, as if children were born bad or good.  More recently, there has been a newly articulated interest in describing children as born with different temperaments.  This perspective does not blame either parent or child.  Rather, it implies that understanding a child's temperament can be an effective tool in knowing what kind of help each child needs to help that particular child grow.


Various descriptions of temperament can be found in the literature.  A formulation I find especially useful and well researched is the classification developed by Drs. Herbert Birch, Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas.  They describe three temperament styles.  The Easy Child:  Regular  rhythm, positive approach to new stimuli, high adaptability, mild or moderate intensity.  This child is usually a delight to raise and makes parents feel good at parenting. The Difficult Child:  Irregular rhythm, negative withdrawal response to new stimuli, none or slow adaptation to change; intense moods, often negative.  These children are more difficult to raise and require considerable energy and self-control in parents. The Slow-To-Warm-Up Child:  Negative but mild responses to new stimuli with slow adaptability, less likely to be irregular than the difficult child. This child require both patience and clarity from parents so that the slow to warm up child neither is excessively pressured nor is left too much to his/her own limited initial adventuresomeness. Of course, not all children fit neatly into one of these "types".  Some are mixtures. Nevertheless, thinking of each child as having temperamental characteristics from the beginning can help focus parents' problem solving efforts on behalf of their children.


In my experience, it is also important to think about the three-way match between a child's temperament, the parents' expectations and the parents' own temperament.  While the Easy Child is pretty flexible and can respond well to many kinds of parenting, education and experiences, the difficult child and the slow to warm up child pose a challenge to some parents.  If parents love zest and intensity and have both the energy and patience for the difficult child, they can enjoy and be reassured by this, otherwise, demanding child.  Many parents, however, need help in tolerating the strain and lack of ease they feel, especially in the early years, with this type of child.  First time parents are especially vulnerable to feeling inadequate or incompetent with the difficulty child.  They may misunderstand their own natural exhaustion as insufficiency and may become frightened by how infuriating this type of child can be.


Similarly, parents who are comfortable with shyness and a low intensity manner may be tickled with the slow to warm up child.  However, if parents are themselves vigorous, active and eager for adventure and want children who are similar, they can easily perceive this type of child as dull or weak willed or dumb.  They can feel very disappointed and, in an effort to stimulate and encourage their child, they can actually overwhelm him/her.  Their own fears can mobilize them to be critical of a child who needs extra time. Community pressure can further aggravate their fears by expecting that every child should be eager to try new things.  On the other hand, if parents try, appropriately, to reduce the amount of stimulation their slow to warm up child has to manage, they may be criticized by our independence oriented culture as overprotective.


Finally, thinking in terms of temperament can give parents a way to talk to their children about their own experience.  We all dread hearing our own parents say that we were just as shy, difficult, etc. as our own child is.  Often, the implication is that we deserve what we now get.  It can be equally dreadful to hear that you were never shy or difficult the way your child is; the implication being that your child doesn't belong.  However, you might take these shards of wisdom and hone them differently.  If it is true that your child is as fidgety as you were, your child may like to hear it from you.  It helps a child to know that his/her mom or dad also had a hard time sitting still or trying new things.  If it is not true, your child might like to know that your impatience with him/her partly comes from the fact that you were different and don/t know quite what it is like to be shy, fidgety, etc.


Thus, it is helpful to realize that parents and children can either be matched well or poorly with regard to temperament.  Mismatching can result in strain and misunderstanding, but knowing your child's temperament can make it easier to see clearly what kind of help he/she needs.  As in the example above, it helps you to observe whether limiting stimulation soothes or bores your child.  Knowing your own temperament and expectations can enable you to address your own fears and natural inclinations first, rather than perceiving your child's behavior through those fears and inclinations. All of us benefit from being understood accurately and without negative judgment.  Thinking of our children and ourselves in terms of temperament can aid us in developing the kind of accurate understanding that forms a solid foundation for making good decisions with regard to children as they grow and change.