Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

The Role of Temperament January 7, 2012

Filed under: Temperament — Heidi Emberling @ 5:04 am

I’ve been thinking lately about our inborn temperament and how that influences family conflicts. There’s a historical debate between those child development specialists who favor the idea that “nature” –our fundamental biology–is the greater influence on who we are, and those who believe “nurture” –the environment in which we grow up—is the defining force.

My thought (like many in the education community) is that there is a complex interplay between nature and nurture that ultimately forms the person we become. Our biological “blueprint” is set at birth, and our environment ensures that we reach our full potential…or not. If we want our kids to reach their full potential, (and what parent doesn’t?), we have to strive to understand their individual temperaments and personalities, and create environments that support and nurture them.

Temperament, or the inborn characteristics that define how we interact with the world around us, can dictate which child behaviors are going to push our buttons and which ones we can ignore. A highly active child of a more sedentary parent, for example, is going to exhaust that parent and may bring them closer to a conflict than a highly active child of a highly active parent who enjoys the “go-go-go” mentality. A strong-willed child of a strong-willed parent, on the other hand, may constantly be butting heads about daily decisions.

These days, researchers are defining temperament in two ways: the intensity and duration of a child’s reactions to events that occur during the day, and a child’s ability to regulate their own emotional state. Some children are highly reactive to new situations, new people, and parental requests. Others are low-reactive and may not even notice (or react to) a transition or change in the daily schedule or routine. In addition, some children struggle to regulate their intense emotions and are more prone to tantrums and conflicts with parents, teachers, or peers. While other children have an innate ability to self-regulate and, after a conflict, may recover more quickly.

It may be helpful for parents to consider these aspects of temperament when deciding if a conflict is temperament-based or situational in nature. If a child is constantly throwing a tantrum when you’re ready to leave the house, for example, they may be high-reactive and unable to regulate themselves well. You’ll need to build in more preparation for transitions and help the child feel more in control of the act of leaving the house.

Hopefully, by seeing children through the lens of temperament, parents can understand more about what events or requests may trigger a strong response. With this knowledge, parents can then design environments, schedules, and routines that better support that child’s individual needs.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist