Understanding Your Child’s Temperament

April 15, 2020

Posted by Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

Some children are “easy.” They are predictable, calm and approach most new experiences in a positive way. Other children can be more difficult, unable to manage their emotional experiences and expression with ease. When a child’s personality doesn’t quite fit or match that of other family members, it can be a challenging.

The ease with which a child adjusts to his or her environment is strongly influenced by temperament – adaptability and emotional style. For the most part, temperament is an innate quality of the child. It is somewhat modified (particularly in the early years of life) by experiences and interactions with other people, the environment and the child’s health.

By the time a child has reached the school years, their temperament is well defined and quite apparent to those who know them. It is not something that is likely to change much in the future. These innate characteristics have nothing to do with your own parenting skills. Nevertheless, the behavioral adjustment of a school-age child depends a lot upon the interaction between their temperament and yours, and how others respond to them – how comfortably they fit in with their environment and with the people around them.

Characteristics of Temperament

By being aware of the characteristics of temperament, you can better understand your child, appreciate their uniqueness and deal with problems of poor “fit” that may lead to misunderstanding and conflict. There are at least nine major characteristics that make up temperament.

  1. Activity level: the level of physical activity, motion, restlessness or fidgety behavior that a child demonstrates in daily activities (and which also may affect sleep).
  2. Rhythmicity or regularity: the presence or absence of a regular pattern for basic physical functions such as appetite, sleep and bowel habits.
  3. Approach and withdrawal: the way a child initially responds to a new stimulus (rapid and bold or slow and hesitant), whether it be people, situations, places, foods, changes in routines or other transitions.
  4. Adaptability: the degree of ease or difficulty with which a child adjusts to change or a new situation, and how well the youngster can modify their reaction.
  5. Intensity: the energy level with which a child responds to a situation, whether positive or negative.
  6. Mood: the mood, positive or negative, or degree of pleasantness or unfriendliness in a child’s words and behaviors.
  7. Attention span: the ability to concentrate or stay with a task, with or without distraction.
  8. Distractibility: the ease with which a child can be distracted from a task by environmental (usually visual or auditory) stimuli.
  9. Sensory threshold: the amount of stimulation required for a child to respond. Some children respond to the slightest stimulation and others require intense amounts.

How Temperament Affects Children and Their Parents

Every child has a different pattern of the nine temperament characteristics. Many, but not all, children tend to fall into one of three broad and somewhat loosely defined categories: easy, slow to warm up or shy, or difficult or challenging. These labels are a useful shorthand, but none offers a complete picture of a child.

The Mild Child

The easy child responds to the world around them in an easy manner. Their mood is positive, and they are mildly to moderately intense. They adapt easily to new schools and people. When encountering a frustrating situation, they usually do so with relatively little anxiety. Their parents probably describe them as a “joy to be around.” About 40 percent of children fall into this category.


Another temperamental profile may reveal a somewhat slow-to-warm-up or shy child who tends to have moods of mild intensity, usually, but not always negative. They adapt slowly to unfamiliar surroundings and people, are hesitant and shy when making new friends, and tend to withdraw when encountering new people and circumstances. Upon confronting a new situation, they are more likely to have problems with anxiety, physical symptoms or separation. Over time, however, they will become more accepting of new people and situations once they become more familiar with them.

Spirited Temperaments

The challenging child tends to react to the world negatively and intensely. As an infant he or she may have been categorized as a fussy baby. As a young child, they may have been prone to temper tantrums or were hard to please. They may still occasionally be explosive, stubborn and intense, and may adapt poorly to new situations. Some children with difficult temperaments may have trouble adjusting at school, and their teachers may complain of problems in the classroom or on the playground. When children have difficult temperaments, they usually have more behavioral problems and cause more strain on the mother and family.

Situational Factors

It is important to distinguish a difficult temperament from other problems. For instance, recurrent or chronic illnesses, or emotional and physical stresses, can cause behavioral difficulties that are really not a problem with temperament at all.

Excerpt from: Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12
© 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics

Teacher Tip: One of our favorite books to recommend is Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic.  Don’t be put off by the title—this upbeat book was voted one of the top 20 books for parents! Author Mary Kurcinka helps parents understand the workings of family dynamics while offering positive behavioral strategies to complement all temperaments.

Topic: Preschool