It is surprising how different children can be, even children from the same family, and most parents know that children are different from birth. Their personalities, likes and dislikes, and the ways they approach and react to situations, may vary a lot. These kinds of differences are known as temperaments. Temperaments influence a child’s behaviour and the way they react to others.

Different temperament patterns

Children’s temperament patterns are usually noticed very early by parents and carers, often from birth, and are present in children over time and in different situations. For example, some babies sleep well and seem to have an easy-going nature, whereas others can be difficult to settle. Some young children like to explore new places and meet new people, while others appear shy and can take a long time to get used to new situations. These kinds of differences in temperament can mean that parenting strategies that worked well with one child may not work so well with another. Understanding temperament can help parents and carers develop better understanding of children’s individual differences and learn how children express their preferences, desires and feelings appropriately.

Researchers have found that the main factors contributing to different temperaments include:

  • how strongly children react to people and events (e.g. getting angry or upset quickly and easily)
  • how easily children approach new people or new situations
  • how well children can control their attention, emotions and behaviour

Children who are more naturally calm, open to new experiences and easy to get along with are easier to parent. Children who are highly reactive and shy often have difficulty with managing fears and worries. This may place more demands on parents and carers for support. Children who are highly reactive and have trouble managing frustration may show this through impulsive or challenging behaviour. These children are often more difficult for parents and carers to manage. Not all children’s temperaments fall neatly into one of the three types described, but they can help explain some of the difficulties children face and how different parenting styles can help.

How parents and carers can help

Adapting your parenting style to match your child’s temperament helps to support their social and emotional development and builds your relationship. Adults can learn to anticipate issues before they occur and avoid frustrating themselves and the child by using approaches that do not match his or her temperament. The goal isn’t to change your child’s temperament, but to help them make the most of their unique temperament - both their strengths and the areas where they may need more support.

Here are some suggestions and examples:

  • Observe how your child responds in a range of situations to get a clear picture of how well she manages emotions and what triggers difficult reactions.
  • Find out what it’s like for your child. Talk about your observations and get your child’s input, for example, “You seemed to get really nervous when your friend asked you to come over to play. What was worrying you?”
  • Communicate caring and warmth (e.g. by showing you understand your child’s point of view). This supports children who feel anxious and reduces negative reactions in children whose behaviour is challenging.
  • Take opportunities to educate others about your child and their temperament. For example, a father explains to his aunt, who is not getting the warm reaction she wants from her niece, “Sophie, like a lot of other kids, needs time to adjust to new people.” Dad then hands her Sophie’s favourite book, helping his aunt learn to approach Sophie slowly.
  • For children who are shy, avoid being overprotective. Provide support through helping them find strategies for managing fears and worries.
  • For children whose behaviour is challenging, use clear and consistent limit setting rather than harsh punishment. Spell out any consequences in advance and make sure that your discipline strategy is fair and is geared to encouraging appropriate behaviour.
  • Be aware of the similarities and differences between your own temperament and your child’s. Adapting your parenting style to suit your child’s temperament can help to improve relationships and behaviour, and don’t forget to look for and highlight your child’s strengths.