Temperament and Heart-Mind Well-Being

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Temperament is the term that describes the types of “automatic” emotional reactions and emotional habits that we have. Both “nature” and “nurture”[1] play a role here; our genetic make-up plus our experiences create our temperament. A unique temperament first shows up in babies and while it can evolve over time, the temperament that is expressed in those early years is strongly linked with personality later in life[2].

During the early years, it is often possible to predict a child’s intensity and type of emotional reaction to people and situations. That is because temperament is stable[3] during this time plus, parents tend to emphasize it by providing or avoiding experiences and interactions according to how they naturally fit with their child. For example, a very active toddler might often be engaged and encouraged in more rough and tumble play as compared to a quieter, less energetic peer. 

The two main aspects of temperament are reactivity and self-regulation. Reactivity refers to the speed and strength of emotional responses (positive or negative). Self-regulation refers to how a child manages their own energy level and emotions.

Within the two parts of reactivity and self-regulation, temperament has nine variables[4]. Every child has their own unique blend of these variables.

  • ACTIVITY LEVEL - how physically active is your child?

  • RHYTHM and REGULARITY - how regular is your child’s eating, sleeping and toileting?

  • APPROACH/WITHDRAWAL - What is your child’s first response to something new; acceptance or rejection?

  • DISTRACTIBILITY - does your child stay focused when there are lots of other things going on around them?

  • EMOTIONAL INTENSITY - how much energy is in your child’s responses to people and situations?

  • MOOD - what’s the typical balance of behaviours; happy or unhappy?

  • ADAPTABILITY - how easily does your child switch gears, moving from one activity to another?

  • SENSORY THRESHOLD - how sensitive is your child to physical stimuli such as sounds, touch, temperature?

  • ATTENTION SPAN and PERSISTENCE - how much time can your child devote to an activity even when obstacles or distractions are present?

Originally identified in the 50’s[5], the early research does, in fact, label temperament as easy, difficult and slow to warm up, but often labels can do more harm than good if misinterpretations lead to inappropriate judgements. Furthermore, the labels don’t acknowledge that there are advantages and challenges with all types of temperaments.  For example, a child who is difficult to distract and is troubled with transitions can work well in a noisy classroom, a strong-willed child is challenging to a parent in some situations, but more likely is less persuaded by peer pressure.

How does temperament influence my child’s Heart-Mind well-being?

Understanding temperament provides parents and caregivers insight about how best to build strong relationships by helping them to appreciate a child’s natural tendencies and giving them cues about their own behaviour choices. It is just one piece of the puzzle that helps us understand and respond to children. Relationships, experiences and the environment come together and influence temperament over time. Adults can help a child understand their own temperament, not with a good or bad label, but with acceptance and self-respect.

Temperament reflects both heredity and experience. This has been evidenced in studies of twins.

Research example #1 found strong links between infant temperament and childhood personality at age 7. (Rothbart et al. 2001)

Research example #2 found links between temperatment at age 3 and personality at age 18-21. (Caspi, 2000)

The Fels Longitudinal Study began in 1929 and to study child development. It is the longest running longitudinal study in the world and, along with new participants, is following some of the third generation of original subjects. One of the many elements examined was the stability of temperament. Researcher Jerome Kagan found that many temperament variables exhibited in childhood remained into adulthood.

In her book, Roots of Empathy, author Mary Gordon reviews research on temperament and describes how learning about temperament in the Roots of Empathy school-based program is used to "get to know" a baby and provide valuable insight in order to build strong relationships.

In a longitudinal study following 141 people from infancy to adulthood in New York (1956), Chess and Thomas defined nine variables making up temperament based on interviews and observations in children as young as 2 months of age.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.