Published on October 22, 2013

Dad lifting boy into mothers arms in a boat

Understanding Your Child’s Temperament: Adaptability

Of all the temperament traits, slow adaptability is probably the one that gives kids the hardest time. This is especially true if the parents aren’t familiar with adaptability.

Adaptability refers to how easily one adjusts to changes. Some kids are able to “go with the flow” – when plans change, they are willing to be flexible; when someone unexpected shows up, they’re delighted; when there’s a new experience to be had, they’re all over it.

Other kids do not adapt as quickly. It takes some time and some information before they’re able to adjust to changes, sometimes even minor ones.

My friend Marianne relates the story of her 3-year-old son the day they were invited to go for a motor boat ride on the lake nearby. When they arrived, little Jordan dug in his heels. “I’m not getting on that thing!” he screamed. That would be pretty typical behavior for a child who is slow-adapting. As parents, there are a variety of ways we might handle this situation.

  • Just leave – no point in dragging this thing out; he won’t back down in this kind of situation
  • Insist that he go ahead and get on the boat as planned. He’ll get over it; he’s not in charge of this family!
  • Give him lots of information and a bit of time to process it.

Let’s take a closer look at the possible outcomes of each of these parenting options.

  • Leaving: There’s a good chance that the parents will be disappointed in missing out on this fun opportunity. Actually, little Jordan will probably be sad about missing out on the fun as well, even if he’s the reason for missing it! Very likely, the friends will be sad about not being able to spend time with the family. Seems like no one wins here!
  • Insisting on going ahead with the planned boat ride over the child’s objections: Most likely this would result in the child becoming even more distraught, which would typically lead to increased crying, screaming, even hitting or kicking as he is “forced” into an unfamiliar situation. By the end of the ride, he would be so completely distraught he couldn’t even enjoy the other, familiar activities he had been looking forward to. Mom and Dad would be exhausted and greatly irritated with Jordan, and the friends who had invited them would likely begin to question their judgment in doing so.
  • Giving him lots of information and a bit of time to process: Ideally, before they even left home Jordan’s parents should tell him about the plan. They could talk about boat rides Mom and/or Dad have been on before and how much fun they had. They could talk about how fun it is when the water splashes up in your face. They could explain about life jackets, how they are worn and what they feel and look like. When they get to the lake, they can take Jordan to the boat and show him what it looks like and explain different parts. They can talk about who’s going to be driving the boat, how it feels bumpy when it moves over the water, where they will sit, how they get in and out of the boat, etc. They especially would want to answer any questions he might have about it. If this approach is used, the chances are good that Jordan would be able to adjust his thinking and actually enjoy the outing—and so would Mom and Dad, as well as the friends who invited them!  Everyone wins!

While this last approach is more time-consuming and requires patience and understanding, it really provides the best outcome for all involved. It works in all kinds of situations that are typically taxing for slow-adapting children. If troubling issues are consistently handled like this, slow-adapting children are eventually able to better manage their discomfort in new situations and also learn to request the information needed to help them adapt as they grow and mature.

The names and scenarios used in this blog post are fictional and were created solely for the purpose of this post.

If you’d like to find out what your child’s temperament scores are like, email the child’s date of birth and your mailing address to

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