Temperament and Goodness-of-Fit
- Temperament and Goodness-of-Fit
(Adapted from Healthy Steps; Bright Futures in Practice, Mental Health except as noted)
- Key Points
- Resources for Parents
- Children are born with unique temperamental characteristics that influence their behavioral
style. Infant "personality" characteristics have been noted as early as the first month of life.
Temperamental characteristics are not exactly fixed, but research suggests that many aspects of
temperament are likely to be consistent over time (e.g. Rothbart,
Derryberry & Hershey, 2000).
- Nine dimensions of temperament have been identified.
- Rhythmicity (degree of predictability/rhythm in the timing of biological functions)
- Activity level
- Approach/withdrawal (response to new situations)
- Adaptability (ease with which response to situations can be modified)
- Threshold of responsiveness (intensity of stimulation needed to evoke a response)
- Intensity of reaction (energy level of response to stimuli)
- Quality of mood (overall positive or negative presentation)
- Distractibility (ease of diversion from an ongoing activity by extraneous stimuli)
- Attention span/persistence (length of time a child will pursue a particular activity).
- Using the 9 dimensions, clinicians have identified common constellations of behavior
(See Parent Text: Kinds of Temperament)
- Easy babies (adaptable, generally positive mood, average activity level, regular body
- Difficult babies (more negative moods, irregular body functions, difficulty adapting to
- Slow-to-warm-up babies (initial difficulty with new situations/routines, but with
time and sensitive care, often adapt)
- Roughly 40% of children exhibit a combination of these temperamental styles
- Goodness of Fit between child temperament and parent personality (See Parent Text: Helping to Create a Better "Fit" Between Parent and Child): Research suggests
only a modest relationship between difficult temperament and long-term behavioral problems. In terms
of outcome, what appears to be more important than child temperament is how parents respond to it. A
temperamentally active child can do well with parents who support her curiosity and pizzazz but could
have problems in a more rigid family. It is this "goodness-of-fit" between child temperament and parental
demands/expectations that can cause struggles.
- Trigger questions to elicit temperament:
- What kind of baby did you get?
- What is her personality like so far?
- Who does she take after?
- How does she respond to new situations?
- Does she keep a pretty regular schedule on her own?
- How happy or upset does she get about things?
- How does her style match up with yours?
- Consider using additional questionnaires to further assess temperament. A number
of well-validated tools are available. For example, Dr. William Carey's Temperament Scales
are available at www.b-di.com
- Independent observation of temperament is recommended to avoid bias from parental
report of children's temperament (e.g. Sameroff, Seifer &
Elias, 1982; Wasserman, DiBlasio, Bond,
Young, & Colletti, 1990).
- Educate parents about what temperament is
(Carey, W.B. 1998)
- Explain to parents that temperament includes both behavioral and emotional
components, and provide a few examples of these (e.g. activity level, mood).
- Suggest that temperamental traits "are real; they are important for both child and
parent, and they are best managed by accommodation, not confrontation or attempts to change them" (p. 1311).
- Assist parents in viewing temperamental differences as varying styles that can be
responded to accordingly, as opposed to 'good' or 'bad' behavior. For example, a persistent child
may be difficult to distract from forbidden things such as electrical cords, but this persistence may
serve her well in other arenas such as problem-solving. Help parents see their child?s reactions
as windows into their temperament.
- Help parents to see temperament as causal, as a way of reframing their reactions
to their child. Lieberman (1993, p. 64) describes the situation parents face when dealing with
challenging aspects of their children's temperament: "When a child's behavior irritates or embarrasses
us, we often respond by seeing murky motives behind it. In a way, we are trying to justify our negative
reaction by looking for equally negative motives in the child. This is very human, but it is neither
fair nor helpful to the parent-child relationship or to the child's emotional development." For example,
seeing a behavior as temperamentally, as opposed to willfully difficult, makes an enormous difference
in how children?s behavior is interpreted.
- Assess and address parents' own issues affecting acceptance of child temperament
- Encourage parents to understand their own temperaments, and how those might influence
the child (Lieberman, 1993). Overprotective parents may exacerbate a child's shyness or withdrawal
by inadvertently acting as though the environment is to be feared. In an active, fearless child,
overprotective behavior may result in increased defiance.
- Note whether the baby reminds the parent of someone else in their life. If such
associations appear to be negative, help parents to see their child as a unique individual.
Try asking "Who does she take after?"
- Assess parents? feelings about themselves: "It is difficult to be an accepting and
contented parent if one is displeased with oneself" (Lieberman, 1993, p. 74). In cases where parental
low self esteem is affecting the parent-child relationship, parents may benefit from therapy.
- Assess parents' level of social and physical support (Lieberman, 1993). When families'
basic needs are being met, and when they have a healthy degree of social support, the development of a
good relationship with the child is facilitated.
- Consider temperament's effects on the development, presentation, and outcome of illness.
- Conditions ranging from abuse to obesity to stomach and head pain can be affected by
temperament. For example, a temperamentally fussy baby's parents may regularly respond to the
irritability by feeding him, resulting in overweight
(Carey, W.B. 1998)
- Physical conditions can impact temperament (Carey, 1989, p. 411).
- prenatal conditions-genetic, chromosomal and other congenital anomalies;
- pregnancy and perinatal stresses-both obstetrical and medical complications;
- postnatal insults to the central nervous system such as malnutrition and toxins;
- handicapping conditions of the central nervous system such as cerebral palsy and information-processing deficits;
- general medical illness such as anemia and hypothyroidism
- Temperament can affect presentation of an illness. For example, an easy child may not
show signs of otitis media; a difficult child may seem sicker than expected
(Carey, W.B. 1998)
- Managing the active, intense child (Lieberman, 1993) (See Parent text: Managing Active, Intense Child):
- Offer the active, intense child opportunities for active and intense play in a safe
environment by creating acceptable spaces for such play both inside and outside the home.
- 'Choose battles' with an intense child.
- When reprimands or other intervention are necessary, it is important to teach the highly
active child self-control skills around specific behaviors. For example, simply telling the child to 'behave'
is not likely to be effective, whereas giving the child specific feedback in specific situations
("you need to stop when I tell you to stop") allows the child to recognize the effects of his or her behavior (p. 97).
- In many cases, intensity of parental response will need to match the child's own level of intensity.
- Managing the shy, withdrawn child (Lieberman, 1993)
(See Parent Text: Managing shy, withdrawn
- Appropriately protect the child from becoming overwhelmed, while not becoming overprotective.
- In most cases, the most successful strategy is to encourage "gradual but steady encouragement
to explore" (p. 121). That is, pushing a child into new situations too quickly will likely backfire.
- Begin by letting the shy child observe a new situation, wait until the child appears
comfortable in the new situation, and then allow the child space to play while remaining available when needed.
- Engaging appropriate peers as partners in drawing out the shy child may also be helpful.
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