What are the major areas of temperament?

From our research and clinical work in health maintenance organizations, we see 3 major areas of temperament. These traits appear from infancy through adolescence and contribute to the majority of temperament-related behavior issues that bother parents. These areas are:

  • Energy level (both activity and reactivity or intensity)
  • Adaptability (to changes, transitions, new things, and intrusions)
  • Frustration tolerance (when facing limits or learning new skills)

Three secondary (but still important) areas are:

  • Sensitivity
  • Regularity of sleep and eating
  • Distractibility (In infancy, distractibility shows up as soothability. Is it easy or hard to distract the infant out of an upset mood?)

Various clinicians and researchers with different purposes have developed different concepts of temperament. There is no single set of traits. Over the years, temperament terminology has multiplied to include behavioral inhibition, harm avoidance, reward dependence, impulsiveness, persistence, effortful control, inhibitory control, and more.

University researchers typically start with large sets of specific questions in order to map out temperament. They then use sophisticated statistics to combine specific questions and concepts into fewer, more general temperament factors such as the "Big 5" (openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion or surgency).

Clinicians generally take a different path. They often prefer to work with more specific concepts, especially those that have proved helpful in explaining how a child's temperament "works."

At the Preventive Ounce, our goal is to explain to you how child temperament works and to predict what issues are likely to occur for your child over the coming months. So we combine helpful elements of both the research and clinical approaches. For example, our infant profile shows 7 general aspects of temperament. However, we then divide these general traits (such as Reactivity or Adaptability) into sub-traits. This way, we can explain more clearly why a child's temperament leads to specific problems. We can also improve our ability to predict whether or not particular issues will occur.

We started our work with the 9 inborn traits described by Dr.'s Chess and Thomas (sensitivity, rhythmicity, activity, reactivity, approach-withdrawal, adaptability, persistence distractibility and mood). As we worked with more children and learned more about how inborn traits affect common behavior issues in young children, we slightly adjusted the traits and names to reflect what we had learned.

Our research also confirms what others have reported. Temperament changes somewhat over time. What predicts behavior at one age may not at the next. So our infant, toddler, and preschool profiles have somewhat different scales.


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