By Annie Garrett, M.Ed., PEPS Contributor (Estimated reading time: 8 minutes)
Of the many hundreds of topics that parent educators share with parents, temperament usually comes first. Understanding your child’s temperament – and how it interplays with your own – is foundational to building healthy attachment in infancy and a lasting connection throughout life. Temperament is also the first topic that perplexes many of the infant families I work with as a parent educator, my own included. Diagnoses of my five-month-old’s temperament have run the spectrum. Friends and family who meet my baby when he’s calm are apt to say something optimistic: “Oh, wow, easy baby, eh!?” Those who meet him at a fussy moment may show up with empathy: “Oy, how have those nights been? My second was fussy, too. You hanging on?”
These everyday interactions have left me scratching my head, especially during these isolated pandemic times when parents lack the frame of reference we would otherwise gain from in-person interactions with our infants’ peers. Yet I know from my experience with my first child, a sensitive four-year-old, that figuring out temperament is essential to creating harmony within the immediate family, extended family, schools, and beyond. Fortunately, there are tools you can use straight away to learn about temperament and connect with your child. And as with most things, the earlier, the better.
What is temperament and what type does my child have?
A study on infant temperament by the National Institute of Health defines temperament as “the foundation of later personality.” Common knowledge leads us to believe we have either an “easy” or “difficult” baby, but research holds that more than half of babies do not clearly fall into either category. The largest temperament study done to date finds that about 40% of children are “easy,” 5-15% are “slow to warm,” 10% are “difficult,” and the other 40% (ish) are a combination of 2 or more types. Furthermore, the American Pediatric Association actually looks at nine different dimensions of temperament and ranks each on a continuum (see the Infant Toddler Temperament Tool below for using this information to your advantage). No wonder it can take many months for even the most sensitive parents to feel confident in their understanding of their child’s temperament.
What if my child has a difficult temperament?
A seminal study conducted in the 1970s used the term “difficult” to define babies who were more irregular, emotionally intense, reactive to stimuli, and fussy. As this study is widely-cited, the term has continued to be used in much of the scientific literature used in the education of pediatric specialists. In practice, however, child development specialists have largely rejected the term, finding it to be confusing at best. The terms “active,” “spirited,” “feisty,” “sensitive” and “emotional” may be more useful.
For example, it took me years to feel confident in my grasp of my first child’s temperament. As an infant, she inspired desperate love and mesmerizing joy and she even slept through the night (!). She was right on time with her developmental milestones. But she also wouldn’t let us put her down for five seconds without fussing; the baby carrier nearly became an extension of our bodies during that first year. But still, we never thought of our baby as “difficult.” To us, “difficult” meant exhausting and inconsolable, and she wasn’t that. So it came as a surprise when her toddler caregivers pointed out that her emotional intensity was exceptional relative to her peers. We took it a sign that our parenting style was failing and tried frantically to change our approach so that we could change her interactions. When we finally began to see that she has a sensitive, emotional temperament, we were able to shift the focus from correcting a nonexistent failure to supporting her as she is.
So how can I work with my child’s temperament rather than against it?
The good news is that there is no good or bad temperament. Let me say that again: there is no good or bad temperament. You are your child’s champion, and it is important that you believe this. Spirited children may be challenging, and are more likely to be assertive, strong-willed, and own their feelings. Easy children may go with the flow, and they are also more likely to be bullied or expected to people please in the long run.
Rather, child development research indicates that what matters is the “goodness of fit” between child and caregiver. Several years ago, when my daughter was about three years old, the two of us were at the airport together. After rushing through the morning to get to the gate in advance of our flight, I wanted to take a little breather. Have a little fun. I, the laid-back one, took her to browse at the gift shop. We spent a few minutes there checking out the book selection. She, the vigilant one, then urged us to get back to the airplane gate. We ended up both being relaxed, cheerful and timely as we boarded the flight. In that moment I realized that our temperaments complemented each other. We would find our goodness of fit more often than not, if we only reframed and worked at it.
Goodness of fit applies not only to the parent-child relationship, but also to the caregiver-child relationship, the teacher-child relationship, and even the environment-child relationship. Cultivating a goodness of fit can help the entire family find greater harmony from infancy and beyond. Understanding your child’s temperament and how it interplays with other family members can give you perspective, patience, and help you make decisions around routine and caregiving that will make everyone’s life easier.
Here are some pointers on building a goodness of fit in the first year of life:
- Take a look at how your temperament matches with your child’s. The Infant-Toddler Temperament Tool can help. There is a movement in the child development field to empower parents with research-based tools. While professionals are experts on child development, you are the expert on your particular child. Centering Pregnancy prenatal groups, the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, and the Infant-Toddler Temperament Tool are all examples. Developed by the national Head Start Office, this tool helps you compare your temperament with your child’s, with tips to build harmony in each domain. For example, if you and your baby are both highly irregular, make a point of telling your baby what that day’s plans each morning are to keep you both on track. If you are less active and your child is highly active, consider setting up an obstacle course for them. In terms of environment, if your child is less adaptable than you are, you might consider if you’ve planned enough time to ease them into their new childcare situation when you return to work.
- Discover your baby’s temperament by tuning in. If you, like me, feel uncertain about some areas of your infant’s temperament, really taking the time to observe your child can help. While many of us are naturally curious about and observant of our babies, we are also living in a highly distracted world that is constantly screaming at us to do more, work more, make more, pound on a smartphone more. Here’s how to practice more intentional observation: set a timer, lay your baby on the ground, lay out objects of interest, and see what captures your child’s attention. Maybe it is the sunlight, a noise, their hands. When they cry, pause before acting. See if you can figure out what they need. Resist the urge to entertain your child; this time is about the child and not about the parent. All of these small moments added up together create an attuned relationship. This can be done indoors and outdoors. Start with five to ten minutes of observation and add more time as you build stamina.
- Know that you aren’t in this alone. We can’t be reminded of this enough in a pandemic. While many of us are lacking in informal supports at this time, there are many professional support services available to us. If you find yourself struggling to connect with your child, some notable local resources include The Fussy Baby Network, Nurturing Pathways, the Parent Trust Help Line. Perinatal Support Washington, and the Washington Association for Infant Mental Health. And there is nothing like a parenting community to keep us all at a baseline level of wellness; PEPS is busy expanding their offerings and the co-op system supports parents from birth through prekindergarten. Nurture Seattle offers one-on-one support from experienced parent mentors. Some mental health services have become waitlisted lately, so consider reaching out before your concern grows into a crisis.
Regardless of their temperament type and our goodness of fit, all children will encounter challenges. The world may try to take advantage of your easy-going child. The world may tell your emotional child that they need to swallow their feelings to make other people comfortable. In her new book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown shares that eighth graders’ sense of confidence was damaged not so much by peers as by their parents’ perceptions of and worries over their weaknesses.
There is a place in our society for all kinds of people if we can only help them to build on their strengths. When you see your child in a positive light, that light will shine a path through the darkness. I believe that parents who start to build that positive relationship in infancy will shine the light sooner, and stronger. So if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to set this article aside and go tune into my new baby, who is just waiting to be seen and understood on his own terms, for the person he already is.