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September 18, 2000
Taming Little Monsters
Understanding your child's temperament
By Irene S. Levine

illustration: Carrie Cox

All of these complaints were made the same morning by the same child, a 7-year-old named Mark:

"Mom, the label in my shirt is killing me. It's scratching my back and annoying me. Can you cut it out?"

"What did you do to my socks, Mom? They have huge balls of thread that are getting caught between my toes and I can't walk."

"Do I have to eat breakfast at the counter? It feels cold and greasy!"

"Mom, what's wrong with this milk? It tastes funny. It's different than the milk I had yesterday."

"You forgot to cut the crust off my toast, Mom. You know I hate it."

Mark's mom, Karen, was in a rush to make a meeting at the office but was accommodating. She tore out the label from his shirt and turned his socks inside out to shake out the lint. She put a place mat on the counter. She tasted the milk and explained that there was nothing wrong with it. (She had picked up 1% milk at the supermarket instead of skim, never realizing that her son would know the difference.) She trimmed the toast and threw out the crust.

"Mark seems to be hypersensitive to everything around him, especially when he is getting ready for school," says Karen. He is also extraordinarily slow in getting dressed, eating, and brushing his teeth. "The amount of time he spends tying his sneakers seems like an eternity," she adds.

When Karen came back into the kitchen, Mark was still tying his sneakers. Patience wearing thin, she shrieked at Mark, "You're as slow as a slug!" She threatened to take away his Nintendo privileges if he didn't get a move on. Mark stormed out of the house, mumbling under his breath. With all the fuss, he inadvertently left his backpack at home. Karen felt horribly guilty.

What happened that morning? Bad child? Bad parent? Actually, it's neither.

The same morning, Mark's 8-year-old sister, Kate, got dressed quickly, ate breakfast, and left for school happy as a clam, without any complaints. What makes two children, even siblings in the same family, so different from each other?

Clearly, some children are more challenging to raise than others. These kids are sometimes called "difficult," or more euphemistically, "spirited," but when they are living in your house, they can seem like plain old monsters.

What is temperament?

An explanation of the differences between children like Mark and Kate can be found in the concept of "temperament." The term temperament is commonly used to describe different behavioral styles that:

  • are inborn and present at birth
  • endure over time
  • vary significantly among different children
  • represent normal, rather than pathological, differences among people

Why does temperament matter?

Temperament profoundly affects the way people respond to people and events around them. While temperament can't be changed, home, school, and social environments can be modified.

Nearly 35 years ago, psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas conducted longitudinal research looking at individuals from infancy to adulthood. They coined the phrase "goodness of fit" to explain how an understanding of child temperament can be used to improve the fit between a child and his or her environment.

Put simply, an understanding of temperament can help parents identify and handle challenging behaviors. This approach has the potential to markedly reduce stress and conflict between parents and their children.

In his book Understanding Your Child's Temperament, William Carey, M.D., a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, builds upon the early work of Chess and Thomas. Based on his own research and his extensive clinical experience in pediatrics, Dr. Carey describes nine dimensions of temperament. While each of these traits is found in every child, one or more of these traits is generally dominant in a particular child. Parents can use the grid below to profile their own child's temperament.

What can parents do?

As Dr. Carey notes in his book, "If your child has temperament traits that are producing stress in your relationship ... the only reasonable approach is to identify the traits, understand where they come from, and plan better tactics for handling them so that the conflict and stress are reduced."

sidebar: The Nine Dimensions of Temperament

For example, if you have a sensitive child, like Mark, you should aim to reduce the sensory stimulation he experiences in the morning. Turn off the radio and keep the kitchen table clear and uncluttered. Routinely cut labels out of shirts and underwear, and use fabric softener on new clothes so that fabrics are less irritating.

If your child initially dislikes anything that is new or different, rushed mornings on school days may not be the best time to switch types of milk or to try a new breakfast cereal.

A child who has a low level of physical activity and who moves slowly may require an early morning wake-up call. This will provide sufficient time for him to proceed at his own pace, so he doesn't feel hurried. In addition, there should always be a clock nearby, so the child has a visual reminder of the time by which each morning task needs to be completed. This will help him get to school on time.

In essence, by profiling your child according to these dimensions, you can find ways to improve the fit between your child's temperament and your parenting style and to reduce unnecessary conflict.

According to psychologist Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, "It's important for parents to set limits, but they also need to understand how their child's temperament affects everything he or she does. There are two big payoffs. When parents appreciate their children's unique temperament traits, their children are better adjusted and the parents are less stressed, more confident, and better able to appreciate them."

Related links:

Outside link: The Temperament Project provides support, education, and information for parents of "temperamentally challenging" children.

Outside link: The Keirsey Temperament and Character website provides online questionnaires to assess temperament.