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Calm, Sunny, and Sweet? Or Loud, Difficult, and Defiant?

Twelve ways parents can influence kids’ attitudes and behavior.

Olga Popkova via Flickr/Creative Commons

We all know kids who are pleasant to spend time with—calm, positive, and engaged—and kids we prefer to avoid because they’re negative and challenging. Some of the differences are innate; those differences are collectively described as temperament.

What Is Included in "Temperament"?

  1. Activity level: energy, restlessness, calm
  2. Regularity: basic physical functions, including appetite, sleep, and bowel habits
  3. Approach: initial response to a new person, situation, activity, or location (rapid and bold, or slow and hesitant)
  4. Adaptability: ease adjusting to change or a new situation
  5. Emotional sensitivity: the capacity to tune into the feelings of self and others
  6. Intensity: the intensity of response to a situation, whether positive or negative
  7. Mood: the degree of optimism and pleasantness in a child's words and behaviors
  8. Attention span: the ability to concentrate or stay with a task
  9. Distractibility: the ease with which a child can be distracted from a task
  10. Sensory threshold: the amount of stimulation required for a response

How Does Temperament Affect Children?

A child’s temperament shapes the way they experience the world. A child who is cautious and needs time to feel comfortable experiences new situations, like a birthday party, very differently than a child who is happy to jump right in.

You didn’t choose your child’s temperament, and you didn’t create it. It’s something they were born with. But you can make a big difference in the extent to which their temperament becomes a strength or a liability.

How Can Parents Help Kids Become Happily Productive Adults, Regardless of Temperament?

  1. Be kind and loving. The more difficult your child, the more important it is that they experience affection and warmth.
  2. Understand your child’s temperament. Pay attention to the way your child is; what they need to feel comfortable and safe; what they need to keep learning and growing.
  3. Work with your child’s temperament. Don’t try to change it. Recognize that each temperament style has pluses and minuses; try to keep your emphasis on the positive attributes of your child’s approach to the world.
  4. Adapt your demands to your child’s temperament. If you have a highly reactive child, make sure they get lots of time outdoors, and help them learn self-calming methods. If you have a child who isn’t very sociable, give them time on their own, but also help them acquire good social skills.
  5. Ensure balance. All kids require a good balance in their lives, including sleep, nutrition, affection, activity, stimulation, playtime, and quiet time.
  6. Give advance notice. Kids make easier transitions when they know what’s coming next, and when.
  7. Be patient. Remember that everything develops. With time, love, and patience, even the most challenging child can learn to be kind, co-operative, and dependable.
  8. Listen. No matter their temperament, a child who feels listened to has an easier time being patient when things don’t go their way.
  9. Say yes whenever possible. Kids who trust that their wishes are being taken into account find it easier to comply when the answer has to be “no,” or it’s time to do something they don’t feel like doing.
  10. Choose your battles. Be as supportive as possible, putting a positive spin on any suggestions or reprimands you feel you must make. “Can you show me how to sit at the table like a big girl?” instead of “Get back in your seat this minute!”
  11. Affirm your child’s strengths to others. If others judge your child for temperament factors, defend them publicly. With a child who is slow to warm up, for example, try, “Andrea is like me. She likes to take her time before she gets close to people.”
  12. Model the behavior you want to see. If you want your child to be calm, co-operative, and reasonable, make sure that’s how you behave.

For More on Parenting Wisely for Kids' Temperament

How to Understand Your Child’s Temperament,” by American Academy of Pediatrics

Study: Parenting Style Matters Most for Difficult Children,” by Zawn Villines

Nature and Nurturing: Parenting in the Context of Child Temperament,” by Cara Kiff, Liliana Lengua, and Maureen Zalewski

Temperament Rating Scales,” by The Center for Parenting Education

Tips on Temperament,” by Zero to Three

Temperament: What It Is and Why It Matters,” by Raising Children Network

Strategies for Parenting Children with Difficult Temperament,” by Karen Stephens

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