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Understanding Temperament and Caregiver-Child Mismatches

How to support connection and growth.

Key points

  • Caregivers can have an easier time parenting when they understand their own and their child’s temperament.
  • No temperament is “good” or ”bad,” but we often consider some difficult, requiring extra support for caregivers.
  • Practitioners can offer approaches to caregivers that strengthen their ability to assess temperament and manage its impact.
  • Adapting parenting style can help when there is a temperament mismatch between caregiver and child.

Co-authored with Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

When adults caring for young children have basic knowledge about temperament and how it affects behavior, they have an edge! While personality is understood as something that develops over time, temperament is believed to be innate. Practitioners can share with caregivers that temperament considers a range of behavior in nine areas: activity level, distractibility, intensity, regularity, sensitivity, approach and withdrawal, adaptability, persistence, and mood. The constellation of these areas makes up each human’s unique temperament, a key predictor of how they experience the world.

Understanding a child’s temperament allows caregivers to make accommodations to help support individual children, recognizing their temperament while also supporting their growth and flexibility. For example, a child with a very high activity level will benefit from environments where a high activity level is appropriate while also learning skills for success in low activity level environments.

What about a child with a high activity level whose caregiver has a low activity level? Even if temperament is biological, biology is not destiny, and caregivers can support young children in their growth and promote goodness-of-fit in the caregiver-child dyad (whether matched or unmatched) in many ways. Among them:

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  • Stay out of binary thinking. Either/or frameworks can cause stress. While there is no “good” or “bad” temperament, certain temperament tendencies feel more challenging to adults. For example, if a child is low on the adaptability scale and high on the activity scale, their temperament may be considered “difficult” (Zhang et al., 2022). Caregivers may need to acknowledge this difficulty before moving on to solutions.
  • Use temperament as a lens for understanding. When caregivers understand their own temperament—and that of their child—they can potentially bring more empathy to themselves and their littles. Sometimes strong parental reactions are rooted in a temperament mismatch. If caregivers see that the conflict is rooted in temperament, troubleshooting may come more easily.
  • Consider the environment. The temperament of the caregiver and the child impact each other, but the environment (physical environment, routines, etc.) also affects children and can be altered to increase ease when there is a mismatch, or a child is struggling.
  • Employ mindfulness and coping strategies. Adults who know their child has a “difficult” temperament or that they have low goodness-of-fit/high mismatch can—through that lens of understanding—make space for this challenge. Mindfulness, self-care, and experimenting with coping strategies may help.
  • Support growth sensitively. It can be daunting to support a slow-to-warm child in adjusting to new environments. Or to support an intense child in moderating their reactions. Caregivers may need support in order to provide the structure required to bring about changes over time.

One last consideration is parenting style. Recent research indicated that more supportive parenting yielded significantly fewer behavior issues—across temperament ranges—with the biggest impact measured for infants who displayed more “difficult” temperaments (Zhang et al., 2022). When caregivers see temperament and goodness-of-fit as factors for understanding themselves and their children, adjustments and allowances can be made so all parties can thrive.


Zhang, X., Sayler, K., Hartman, S., & Belsky, J. (2022). Infant Temperament, early-childhood parenting, and early-adolescent development: Testing alternative models of Parenting x Temperament interaction. Development and Psychopathology. 34(3), 784-795.

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