Finding the Right Parenting Style to Match Your Child's Temperament

For effective parenting, parents must choose approaches based on their child’s temperament. Here are some tips to handle children with different temperaments and traits.

By Amrita Gracias

Finding the Right Parenting Style to Match Your Child's Temperament

Every child is unique, both in terms of personality and temperament. While personality is largely influenced by a child’s environment and experiences, temperament is an innate quality – something a child is born with.

So, what exactly is temperament?

According to the handout, ‘Understanding Temperament in Infants and Toddlers’, authored by Lindsey T. Allard and Amy Hunter, and published on the website of CSEFEL, “A child’s temperament describes the way in which she approaches and reacts to the world. It is her personal ‘style’. Temperament influences a child’s behavior and the way she interacts with others.”

The authors also say that, “While temperament does not clearly define or predict behavior, understanding a child’s temperament can help providers and families better understand how young children react and relate to the world around them.”

So, when you understand your child’s temperament and use approaches that suit his traits, not only does it result in a happy and healthy parent–child relationship but also promotes the growth and development of the child. Ms Aarti Rajaratnam, child and adolescent psychologist, says, “Parenting can never be a perfectly structured process. It is a real and dynamic process where ‘looking at the child’ and responding is more important than making the child ‘look at you’ while he struggles to keep up, falls short of your expectations and leads you to react.”

Types of temperament

The New York Longitudinal Study, carried out by child psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess in the 1950s, concluded that temperament can be of three types:

  • Difficult
  • Slow to Warm Up
  • Easy

The authors came up with these three categories after a detailed observation of a group of children for over a period of 30 years. They further concurred that these three types of temperaments are the result of a variable mix of the following nine distinct qualities:

  1. Activity level – refers to the physical energy level
  2. Rhythmicity – ability to follow simple routines like sleep and waking hours, and regularity of body functions like meals and elimination
  3. Sensitivity – type of response to stimuli in an environment
  4. Approachability – initial reaction to changes in an environment or situations
  5. Adaptability – ability to adjust to changes in situations
  6. Intensity – the energy level used in responses
  7. Persistence – ability to continue with a task despite distractions or interruptions
  8. Distractibility – tendency to get easily distracted by interruptions
  9. Mood – happy or unhappy / cheerful or cranky disposition

The three styles, as described by Thomas and Chess, help parents understand, through observation, the pattern of response in our child and modify expectations, responses and support accordingly to make the two-way interaction meaningful and effective over time,” says Ms Aarti. She further adds, “The model of parenting helps parents set truly realistic expectations based on very specific understanding of the nine essential dimensions that are unique to each child."

Parenting style to suit your child’s temperament

Let’s try to analyse in detail the parenting style we should adopt to suit our child’s temperament.

The ‘difficult’ child

General characteristics: is fussy, has irregular body functions and routines, exhibits intense reactions to changes, and is overwhelmed by new experiences; a difficult child can also seem withdrawn or act out depending on her mood

What parents should do

  • Understand the reasons: Your child’s behaviour is a manifestation of his temperament. So, remember that he doesn’t behave in a particular manner intentionally. As a parent, try to understand the root cause of his behaviour, and focus on helping your child learn how to tackle the challenges. At the same time, reinforce positive behaviour.
  • Be patient: Dealing with a ‘difficult’ child is challenging and requires a great deal of patience and effort. Empathise with his feelings in difficult situations and react calmly instead of getting worked up. According to Ms Aarti, “With both approaches–avoidance and adaptability—parents can be proactive with regard to planning for social events in line with the child's style to ensure that there are no meltdowns because of stress.”
  • Maintain a schedule: As your child finds it difficult to adjust to routines, maintain some structure. Keep predictable schedules for sleeping and waking up, mealtimes and other routine tasks. Make sure to let your child know in advance about any impending changes in the schedule to help him be prepared. Also, maintain a relaxed schedule by not cramming too many activities into a day.
  • Have realistic expectations: Have expectations that are age-appropriate. Ms Aarti says, “Understanding rhythmicity can help parents anticipate specific delays in potentially stressful areas and make small lifestyle changes to assist the child.” Also avoid over-reacting in challenging situations but remain firm when disciplining by clearly explaining the limits and consequences. Getting agitated when your child throws up a tantrum will only increase the power struggles between the two of you.

The ‘slow to warm up’ child

General characteristics: is usually cautious in nature, takes time to adjust to new experiences or changes, and is sensitive with high-intensity reactions

What parents should do

  • Accept the trait: Even though your child is slow to warm up, avoid labelling her as shy or reserved, and don’t compare her with her peers or siblings in the hope of making her act differently. Focus on her strengths and nurture them patiently. And, with time, she will gradually learn to open up to those around her.
  • Prepare your child: Your child may feel unsure and take time to adapt to any new experience. So, prepare her in advance for what is going to happen and encourage her to express her feelings about the change. Don’t attempt to push her into the spotlight as this will scare her more and make her feel hesitant rather than confident.
  • Be responsive: Your child will, most likely, be reluctant to take part in new activities or interact with unfamiliar individuals. You can help her overcome her fears or unwillingness to reach out to others by giving her the right assurances. But, at the same time, don’t be over-protective, as, then, she would never be willing to come out of her shell. Respecting her behaviour and attributes will certainly boost her confidence and prepare her for new experiences and challenges. In time, a ‘slow to warm up’ child would usually grow up to be more outgoing.

The ‘easy’ child

General characteristics: is usually calm and happy, has regular bodily functions and routines, and reacts positively to change with low or moderate-intensity reactions

What parents should do

  • Raising a child with an easy temperament is relatively effortless as he usually adapts well to different situations. However, parents of an easy child often make the mistake of taking him for granted and not giving him due attention. So, make an effort to stay involved and continue to show your interest in all that he does.

Now that you understand how temperament plays a critical role in the way your child connects with her surroundings, make suitable changes to your parenting style to support and guide her, and gift her with a pleasant childhood.

Aarti C Rajaratnam is a psychologist specialising in childhood and adolescent mental health, a best-selling author and an innovative education design consultant.

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