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Temperament word cloud image

When talking to parents and caregivers, it can be helpful to ask them what they know about temperament and assess their understanding of how their temperament matches (or doesn’t match!) their child’s. Parents may be able to talk about their child’s response to different environments, sensory preferences or reaction to change and may not have thought about their own response. Parents and caregivers may not be able to recognize ways in which their own temperaments impact the behavior of their child.

What is Temperament?

Temperament is generally defined as consistent individual differences in behavior that are biologically based and are relatively independent of learning, system of values and attitudes. One key concept to remember is that temperament is biologically based, not made up of characteristics that are chosen. As such, an individual does not have the ability to change their temperament but rather use their knowledge to adapt to the environment. As an example, for individuals who become overwhelmed by noise, the volume of the television or radio could be turned down, voice tones can be adapted and strategies for calming in loud environments can be taught. Conflict can arise in the parent-child relationship when a parent perceives a child is acting in a particular way “on purpose” or “to make them (the parent) upset.” It is important to recognize that a child’s behavior is often a reflection of his or her temperament. Like many other developmental skills, parents need to be able to teach their children how to appropriately respond to their internal triggers.

Parent and caregiver understanding of how to support a child’s temperament style is crucial in the development of social-emotional skills. When parents can help children adapt to their environment and understand their own preferences, children will be better prepared to adapt to different environments using coping skills and resources available.

Having Conversations about the Parent’s Temperament

I often get questions about how to have conversations with parents and caregivers about temperament. Beginning by asking questions can be a good place to start. Helping parents to gain insight about their own temperament can help them to be more in tune with the actions of their child. Oftentimes, parents have insight into their child but may not have thought about their own preferences or strengths. Parents may not recognize the role that their temperament plays in the dynamic of the relationship with their child. Some questions that could be helpful to ask parents include:

  • How do you manage your emotions?
  • What are your sensory preferences (e.g. light, sound, etc.)?
  • How do you respond to change?
  • How do you communicate your wants and needs?

When parents and children have mismatched temperaments, strain in the parent-child relationship can be magnified. Parents may incorrectly attribute differences in interaction style to a child’s developmental delay, ascribing intent behind behavior or believing a child can simply change his or her temperament. Parents may not be aware of their own needs or have the capacity to understand how to adjust in order to have their needs met. When mismatched temperaments are not understood, parents may expect more of their child or believe that their child can change their behavior independently. This can lead to frustration and increased stress for parents. In addition, parents may feel as though they do not have the ability to meet their child’s needs or parent effectively. Children rely on their parents to be emotional co-regulators. This means that especially when children are young, they look to their parents to model how to manage uncomfortable emotions, changes to routine and internal triggers. When parents are calm, children can de-escalate more quickly. As children learn to understand their own temperaments, they can build their abilities to navigate different situations and interactions and become more effective in developing social-emotional regulation.

Talking about the Child’s Temperament

As providers, when parents talk about the ways in which they interact with their children, we can then begin to ask questions to help identify children’s temperament styles and explore which interventions are available to build family capacity. Once a parent can begin tuning in to the child’s unique temperament, the parent can then work to develop strategies for supporting the child’s needs. Here are some questions that you could help the parent to consider when trying to understand their child’s temperament:

  • How does my child express their feelings?
  • How does my child engage in play?
  • How does my child respond when they experience discomfort?
  • How does my child react to change?
  • What does my child do when going through transitions?

When parents are in tune with their child’s temperament, they are able to support their child’s behavior more effectively. Parents can then understand their child’s needs to provide opportunities for learning new coping skills.

When children are young, it is important for parents to give a lot of support in helping their work through challenges. As children get older and can understand their own temperament style and what they need to be successful, the interactions become more balanced. When parents and caregivers are able to understand the ways in which temperament plays a role in the behavior and interactions of their children, stress is reduced and successful intervention strategies can be realized.

Now that you have some more tools to understand temperament, how can you help parents recognize and respond to their child’s unique characteristics?

Share your ideas by leaving a comment below!


For more information about this topic, check out Naomi’s 2-part webinar series on the VA Early Intervention Professional Development Center:

Foundations of Social Emotional Development: Temperament – Part II

Foundations of Social Emotional Development: Attachment – Part I

Also, be sure to visit the Social-Emotional Development topic page!


Photo of author Naomi Grinney

Naomi Grinney, LCSW has worked in early intervention for the past five years. Prior to working in EI, Naomi worked as a community-based mental health crisis response provider, as social worker in a psychiatric hospital and as a behavioral interventionist at a residential treatment center. Naomi is passionate about supporting the social emotional development of children and building family capacity and has worked with kids and families for twenty years. As the parent of a child who received Early Intervention services, Naomi brings a unique perspective to her role in providing tools and resources to empower parents in supporting their child’s development. Naomi can be reached at naomi.grinney@fairfaxcounty.gov. 

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