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Understanding Your Child's Personality

Temperament is something we're born with -- it's a set of traits that makes each of us unique, and it's a powerful factor in determining how we react to the world. The way a child approaches a new situation is one example of temperament at work.

Consider, for example, three 2-year-olds entering their classroom on the first morning of daycare. Rahim and his mother open the door and scan the room. Within minutes, Rahim rips off his coat and abandons his mom to join the other kids building with blocks.

When Frank and his dad arrive at the classroom, Frank spends a long time leaning into his dad's leg and refuses to take off his coat or hat. After watching the other kids for a while, he inches away from his dad to get a closer look at a table where kids are working on puzzles. At that point, Frank's dad suggests that he join them. Frank takes his dad's hand, and they walk together to the puzzle table. Frank sits down next to another child and gets to work.

Carlos speeds into the room ahead of his grandmother -- no time to waste looking around to check out what's going on. He charges up to two boys who are crawling on the floor, grabs one of the trucks, and yells, "Mine!"

Why do these three children react so differently to the same situation? Each of these three boys was born with his own temperament. How your child reacts to everyday routines, transitions, unfamiliar situations, and new people is influenced by his temperament.

Although there are many ways that temperament can be defined, we focus here on five traits that represent the range of inborn characteristics: intensity of reaction, activity level, tolerance for frustration, response to change, and reaction to new people.

Each of these is present in every child -- what differs is how they're expressed. For example, when it comes to reaction to new people, one child might cheerfully greet a cousin he's never met, while another may not even make eye contact.

How can you tell what your child's temperament is? Between 6 and 9 months, most parents begin to see patterns in their child's behaviors that give them clues, but temperament becomes more apparent in the toddler years, as your child becomes more verbal and social.

As you read about these characteristics, picture each one as a continuum. Although we describe each end of the range, many children fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

1. Intensity of Reaction

Kids like Carlos tell the world loud and clear how they feel. They're what we would call big reactors. Intense kids like these might squeal at the top of their lungs when they're happy, and shout, throw things, or hit when they're mad. Kids on the low range of intensity tend to be quiet and rarely fuss, sleep more than average, and show their emotions with only slight changes in facial expression or tone of voice.

Characteristics: From "I just want to chill" to "I want everyone to know how I feel" kids

What you can do for a low-key child:

  • Turn things up to attract her attention. Choose music with a dynamic beat. Use a dramatic voice while reading.
  • Devise activities that involve taking turns so your child remains engaged.
  • Get her body moving. Low-intensity children are often more responsive if they're mobile.

What you can do for the big reactor:

  • Turn things down. Music and lighting should be soft.
  • Anticipate blowups. Gently remove your child from potentially explosive situations. Try redirecting -- getting him engaged in a different activity -- or just give him a big hug.
  • Make sure your child gets the sleep he needs.

2. Activity Level

If your child is action oriented, you'll probably know by the time she's walking. She'll always want to be on the go, exploring the world around her by crawling, running, and climbing. These movers and shakers love spaces that offer lots of opportunity for movement.

At the other end of the spectrum are kids who are content to sit and play quietly, and may prefer exploring with their hands instead of their legs. They tend to take in the world by looking or listening. Their interest in the things around them can be every bit as strong as an active baby's, but they don't feel the same need to be up and about.

Characteristics: From "I'm happy to sit and play" to "I need to be on the move"

For the less-active child:

  • Entice your child to move by placing an interesting toy a little beyond where she can easily get to it.
  • Follow your child's lead, and take it slowly. Let him watch kids on the jungle gym, then suggest going down the slide on your lap.
  • Listen to music together. It's easy to shift from listening to dancing if the music moves you.

For the child who's on the move:

  • Offer lots of opportunities for safe, active exploration. Play hide-and-seek, freeze tag, and other active games.
  • Don't expect your child to sit still for long. Let her stand for a diaper change and leave the high chair as soon as she is done eating.
  • Start limiting active play at least an hour before bedtime and perhaps 30 minutes before naptime to help slow her down.

3. Tolerance for Frustration

You may have clues about how well your child copes with frustration in the first year, but this will become more evident in toddlerhood. Children who are persistent usually keep trying when faced with a challenge and have the patience to wait for their needs to be met.

A baby with a high tolerance for frustration will keep trying until she gets the cracker into her mouth. While one child may try over and over, a less persistent baby may give up and cry or attempt another activity instead.

Characteristics: From "I-give-up" kids to "Let's try again" kids

How to help the child who gives up easily:

  • When your child falls apart, validate her frustration by saying, "Puzzles are hard! It makes you so mad when the piece won't fit in the space."
  • Help your child think through solutions without doing the work for her.
  • Try again later. An activity that seems impossible when a child is hungry for lunch or needs a nap may be very manageable later.

How you might respond to a persistent child:

  • Join your child in his play. He may not need your presence, but he needs and benefits from your interaction, and you can help him build new skills.
  • Check to see whether your child is spinning his wheels by trying the same strategy over and over. Suggest new ways to approach the challenge.
  • Be firm. A persistent child may have a hard time accepting no for an answer. Instead of giving in, redirect her to something that she is allowed to do.

4. Response to Change

While young children are generally well known for being inflexible about their routines, some kids seem to be even more dependent on them.

These children tend to react to the smallest of shifts -- a new food on their plate or a slight change in the bedtime routine. They have more tantrums, which can be triggered by anything from the suggestion of a new babysitter to a change of furniture in their house to the idea that they have to stop doing something they are immersed in; and they need lots of time and support to get comfortable in new surroundings, generating lots of "No, No, No!" outbursts before they adjust.

Other children take change in stride. They tend to find new jackets, new friends, and new foods interesting; and they respond comfortably anywhere you take them because they nap in noisy restaurants, nurse wherever you happen to be, and enjoy looking around, drawing on the paper you tucked in your bag, or joining in the conversation.

Characteristics: From "I like the way things are" to "Show me what's new"

For the child who prefers things the way they are:

  • Use familiar objects, such as a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, to ease anxiety during transitions.
  • Ease into new activities. Talk about new activities first, and set aside enough time to allow your child to get comfortable.
  • Offer advance notice when an activity is about to end. For example, you might say, "When the timer rings, it's time for your bath."

For the child who loves to try something new:

  • Be sensitive to your child's signals. When a child is extremely easygoing, we sometimes assume that any change is okay.
  • Be sure to find some one-on-one quiet time to enjoy together. No matter how easily a child can handle being out in the world, there's nothing like taking time to snuggle on the living room couch and look at a favorite book together.

5. Reaction to New People

A trait that is often apparent to parents early on is how your child reacts to new people. Does he engage newcomers by smiling or cooing (if he's nonverbal), or is he shy and hesitant around people he doesn't know?

Kids who are slow to warm up tend to need time and support from trusted caregivers before they feel comfortable enough to interact.

Characteristics: From "Let's take it slow" to "Glad to meet you"

For the "Let's take it slow" child:

  • Introduce your child to new people from the safety of your arms. Give them your child's favorite toy or book, and let them use it as a bridge to connect with him.
  • Whenever possible, prepare your child to meet new people ahead of time, and give her lots of time to get used to places.
  • Don't label your child as "shy." Labels can stick and become self-fulfilling prophecies. You can just explain to your child and others that he likes to take things slow.

How you might respond to a "Glad to meet you" child:

  • Provide lots of opportunities for social interaction.
  • Be ready to step in when needed. Even the most sociable child can find himself in situations where he's had enough.
  • Give your child time to play on his own. Giving your child the chance to use his own resources and imagination helps him learn that he can be content not only with friends, but also alone.

The combination of all these individual traits is what makes your child who he is. Temperament is not something that he chooses, nor is it something that you created.

There is no right or wrong, no better or worse temperament (although some are, no doubt, more challenging to handle). It's very important for children to be accepted for who they are.

But let's face it: Any parent with an intense, reactive child, or a child who is very shy and slow to warm up, will tell you that raising these children can be emotionally and physically exhausting.

Whatever your child's temperament, you may prefer some of your child's characteristics over others. Frank's father may wish that Frank were the kind of kid who would just get on with it rather than take so long to settle in. Carlos's mother sometimes wishes for a disappearing pill, like the day Carlos's exuberant hug knocked over a friend. Even Rahim's parents, who you may think have it made, at times would like Rahim to be more assertive -- for example, not letting everyone cut in front of him for a turn on the swing.

Parents struggle with these kinds of feelings for a range of reasons. Your child's behavior may remind you of parts of yourself you don't like so much and want to change. Conversely, you may feel discomfort with ways in which your child is very different from you -- such as her ease in new situations when you like to take things slow.

Keep in mind that characteristics you find challenging in your child's early years may turn into positive qualities as he grows. Intense, feisty kids are often very passionate and creative, and are good at asserting themselves and making things happen. Slow-to-warm-up kids can be very thoughtful and sensitive, good at listening and empathizing with their peers.

For now, recognizing patterns in your child's behavior that are influenced by temperament can help you anticipate your child's responses to certain situations. For example, if you know your child gets overstimulated by too much noise, you can make shorter trips to the store and hold him in a baby carrier so he feels safe and sheltered.

Remember, too, that no matter how consistent a child's patterns may appear to be, sometimes children can -- and will -- catch you off guard by acting in ways that you don't expect. A child who is usually wary of strangers might fall madly in love with her new teacher. The fact that your child can surprise you is one of the most exciting and even delightful rewards of parenthood.

Adapted from Bringing Up Baby: Three Steps to Making Good Decisions in Your Child's First Years (Zero to Three Press) by Claire Lerner, LCSW, a child development specialist at Zero to Three, and Amy Laura Dombro. To order, go to www.zertothree.org/bookstore or call 800-899-4301.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2004.