Just as we’re born with a certain eye color, hair color, and body type, we’re also born with a unique way of approaching, responding to, and interacting with the world: Our temperament.
Parents, caregivers, culture, and experiences all help shape a child’s behavior (especially during the first years of his life), but on a fundamental level his temperament doesn’t change. A highly-reactive child can learn to regulate his emotions, for instance, but he will probably always feel things deeply. A timid child can learn to manage anxiety, but it’s likely he will continue to feel some hesitation in the face of something new or unfamiliar.
Classic research on temperament found that most children fall into one of three categories: Easy/flexible, difficult/challenging, and slow-to-warm-up/cautious. Roughly 35% of children are a mix of different temperaments.
We’ll give a snapshot of the three temperament types below, but first let’s take a look at the nine characteristics that make up temperament. Each is a continuum, with most children leaning towards one end or the other.
Nine Characteristics of Temperament
- Activity Level – how active a child tends to be.
- Biological Rhythms – how regular a child’s eating, sleeping, and elimination tend to be.
- Distractibility – how easily a child is distracted from an activity or task.
- Approach and Withdrawal – how a child tends to approach new situations, people, places, foods, or changes in routines.
- Adaptability – how easily a child transitions from one activity or new situation to another.
- Persistence – how a child reacts in the face of a challenging activity.
- Intensity of Reaction – how a child reacts to a situation, whether positive or negative.
- Sensitivity – how sensitive a child is to sensory input like noise, light, food textures, or being touched.
- Mood – whether a child leans towards being mostly upbeat, or mostly serious.
Three Types of Temperament
These three categories provide a helpful snapshot of typical behaviors, but every child’s temperament is unique. Even little ones in the same category can be very different. Their behaviors can range in intensity, and they may behave differently at different stages in development.
Easy or Flexible (about 40% of children)
The easy or flexible child is typically:
- Predictable with eating, sleeping, and elimination
- Easygoing about new situations, people, transitions, and change
- In a positive mood
- Mild to moderate when expressing emotion
Parents and caregivers of easy / flexible children commonly describe them as friendly, happy and, well, easy! They feel they are doing a good job.
Difficult or Challenging (about 10% of children)
The difficult or challenging child is typically:
- Unpredictable with eating, sleeping, and elimination
- Slow to adapt to new situations, people, transitions, and change
- In a negative mood
- Intense when expressing emotion
Parents and caregivers commonly describe them as hard to parent / care for, stubborn and intense. They feel they are doing a bad job.
Slow-to-Warm-Up or Cautious (about 15% of children)
The slow-to-warm-up or cautious child is typically:
- Wary of and slow to adapt to new situations, people, transitions, and change
- More comfortable observing than engaging at first (once comfortable, he can be as engaging as any other child)
- In a serious mood
- Mild when expressing emotion
Parents and caregivers commonly describe them as shy, fearful, and sensitive. They wonder what they can do to “toughen them up” a little.
Certain temperaments are harder to parent / care for than others, but it’s important to remember that you can’t fundamentally change your child’s temperament. What you can do is develop his strengths and teach him skills for coping with temperament-related challenges. You can read more about how to do that here.