The first thing to know about temperament is that it’s spelled with an ‘a’ in the middle. I often forget that.
The next thing to remember is how fascinating it is and how much it can tell you about your child.
So how does temperament affect development? It’s not just about knowing your child’s temperament, but knowing your temperament and considering how it meshes with your child’s. This post aims to give some temperament information for parents while taking a look at how these temperaments manifest in adults.
While some people get old school and define the temperaments as sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic, I’ve always been a big fan of Alicia Lieberman’s very parent-friendly-without-being-preachy-or-shame-y book, The Emotional Life of the Toddler. Her chapter on Temperament discusses four types:
- Slow to Warm Up
While I’m not a huge fan of the names, I want to emphasis that we’re naming the temperament and not labeling the person. Their temperament is a part of who they are and we’re not describing their whole personality or who they are. Temperament gives some good information on understanding your child and why they do what they do.
So What is Temperament & How Does Temperament Affect Development?
Temperament is pretty much the “nature” of the nurture/nature discussion. It’s a natural way of being in the world. It’s not something most people can change and parents can waste an awful lot of energy trying to do so. I like to think of it as the pure way that each of us experiences the world. We add to that our life experiences, our highs & lows, observations of how are parents are in the world, and all together we have our wonderful humanness.
There’s a saying that no two children have the same parents. Temperament is one of those reasons. Why can siblings take in their parents in such different ways? Temperament is one—just one, mind you—of those reasons.
Lieberman gives an example of a child for each kind of temperament. For the purposes of the work that I do with parents, I’m going to focus on figuring out your own temperament.
Jane has always been described as laid back. She easily fits in anywhere and makes acquaintances quickly and without much effort. She’s usually around people during any gathering and often listening twice as much as talking. It takes a lot to get her upset and just as much for her to become extraordinarily excited and happy. Often, she doesn’t understand why people are affected by things as deeply as they are, but sympathizes with them and is great to talk to during these times. She can be anxious, she can be depressed, but you’d have to know her well to recognize the subtleties of each. You definitely don’t want to hurt or upset her and most people would feel really bad if they did because she’s just so…easy and likable. Many are jealous of this and some worry that she doesn’t experience the great highs that life has to offer. She actually does, but you wouldn’t know it, and she can find contentment in simplicity. You’re kind of jealous of that.
Slow to Warm Up
Jeffrey won’t be the first person to greet you at the door of a party and may hang back before approaching any new situation or person. He’s cautious. He’s observing and likes to figure things out from afar before heading in. He’s not the lead in any exploration, but you want him on your team because he’ll have taken in the minute details of people that you didn’t realize. People may think of him as “deep” and he might be, but he has that persona because he waits and only speaks when he has something to add to the conversation. He’s not figuring things out while he’s talking, he’s already processed in his head the several different ways how he might say something. The more extroverted may get annoyed and feel he’s holding back from them.
With Jessica you’re never quite sure what to expect. When you know you’re meeting up with her, you’re crossing your fingers that she’s in a good mood or else…. While there are days when you are so angry at her and she can be incredibly mean, there are others when she’s very generous and affectionate—these can be in the same afternoon. How she reacts to the world isn’t always logical to you and if she were being self-reflective she might not understand why each day is different from the next. She can be extremely exciting or incredibly infuriating, but people are definitely drawn to her and how she seems to allow herself to publicly feel and express herself in a way many others are afraid too allow themselves to do.
Tim powers into every situation. You know he’s arrived before he walks in the door. He’s got jokes, he’s got an opinion, and he doesn’t hesitate to share them. He figures things out as he’s talking. Depending on who you are this is annoying or refreshing. It’s hard to believe he’s holding anything back from you and what you see is, most likely, what you get. He can be exhausting, but his energy comes from being as social as possible. Tim’s a risk taker in his activities, his job, and his daily life. He seems to require a lot of stimulus to feel that he’s living and living is very important to him. Rarely is he going to sit down and have a relaxed conversation with you. Tim would be more open to going on a walk or doing an activity with you than to sit down for tea for a lazy afternoon.
Figuring Out Your Temperament
Have you begun to see yourself in any of these descriptions? I’m sure you can find some online tests somewhere if you’re struggling, and remember that, especially as adults (and especially if you might, just might, have a difficult temperament), you’re going to resist seeming to have one more label and be put in a box. But you’re not sharing this with someone else, it’s just a way of knowing yourself and how you interact with the world.
Yes, you can straddle some of the temperaments, and whichever temperament you have you’ve more than likely figured out some clever, resilient ways of adapting to different situations. You may not even be aware of situations that you avoid now that you’re an adult because of your temperament. A slow to warm up person may resist new social situations because you haven’t recognized that although the first half hour will be really difficult, you’re going to settle in if you allow yourself time. Knowing this, you can begin to trust that it will get better and not be so quick to make an excuse to stay home.
Temperament Information for Parents and How to Use It
Your children may bring out some of these temperamental traits that you’ve been able to hide. As you chose your friends, your partner, and you only see your family on Thanksgiving you’ve made a conscious effort to structure your life according to what your temperament can handle. But your child…you don’t get to say, “This isn’t a good fit, can I have another, please?”
No backsies as the kids say (or as I said as a kid, the kids say something else now).
Most of the parents in my office, whether they bring in their child or not, are experiencing a mismatch of temperament. With all the other parenting struggles they are having, it can take a lot of pressure off of a parent and a child to note that part of the reason that they are struggling is temperament and not because anyone is doing something wrong.
Often there is an active parent with a slow to warm up child (or some other combination) and both are fighting for their existence.
The slow to warm up mother can feel intense shame when her active kid is the first one to rush up to other people at a playground OR the slow to warm up father can feel intense anxiety that his slow to warm up child is exhibiting the same qualities he feels have held him back and caused him so much pain throughout his life.
In counseling sessions it can be really amazing to watch a family take a breath and sit back in their seats as they recognize the pressure they’re placing on each other. When they realize that other temperaments are “okay” they can begin to stop putting such expectations out there. They can stop being disappointed in each other for not being the people they want each other to be.
That’s not to say that your slow to warm up child can never be the lead in the school play. If they want to do that, but find their temperament is holding them back, they can find ways to manage that. I’ve noted Susan M. Cain’s book Quiet before as a great story of how introverts don’t overcome their introversion, but learn how to use it as a strength to do the things they want to do.
So I’m encouraging you not to use temperament to limit yourself or your child, but if you can understand your temperament you can give yourself some needed relief in your parenting, learn some tools to integrate this new knowledge, and spend your time worrying about something else!
If you’re really struggling with parenting and want to discuss some of the issues that are getting in the way of you being the parent you want to be, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Also check out my Parent Counseling page and see some more posts on different aspects of parenting. Feel free to let me know a topic you’d like a future post to focus on as well.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working in family and men’s counseling for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.