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Published on June 28, 2013

Kids laying on their backs in the grass

Understanding Your Child’s Temperament: What is Temperament?

A lot of people confuse temper and temperament. Temper is what we lose when we get angry. Temperament has a much broader definition. Temperament is all about how we face the world and respond to it day-in and day-out. It is made up of nine characteristics, each of which influences our responses.

Ever wonder why some people seem so much at ease in circumstances that send you right over the edge? Or how it is that some things that seem so natural to you seem to cause others great difficulty? Chances are these things are reflections of our temperaments.

Our temperaments are genetically determined and unchangeable. We can, however, learn ways to minimize the difficulties any particular trait might cause us by simple adjustments in our activities. As adults we have learned over time how to accommodate the demands of our temperaments. Children have not yet learned those skills. The good news is that once we have learned about our children’s temperament, we can make those simple adjustments for them until they can learn to do this independently.

Defining Temperament

The notion of temperament came about as a result of a landmark study done by Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas in the 1950s (New York Longitudinal Study – if you’d like to Google it). During this study, Chess and Thomas observed preschool children over a period of time and made notes of their observations. From these notations, they identified the nine traits that have become known as temperament. There has been much temperament research done since then and it is still ongoing. But no one has significantly defined temperament differently from Chess and Thomas.

The temperament traits Chess and Thomas defined:

  • Activity level
  • Regularity
  • Adaptability
  • Sensory threshold
  • First response
  • Intensity
  • Predominant mood
  • Persistence
  • Distractedness

The traits are recognizable in our behaviors. Every one of us has all nine of these traits. Most of us demonstrate most of the traits in sort of a middle-of-the-road manner – no more or less than the average person.  However, sometimes one trait or another really influences our behavior a lot. These are the traits we consider either high or low on our temperament scale. They are noticeable in our behaviors.

There are no “good” temperaments or “bad” temperaments. The extreme ends of each trait can cause both troubling and rewarding behaviors. Learning about temperament can help us smooth out the rough spots for our little ones.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll discuss each trait individually and see how that trait appears in the behaviors of our children. We’ll also look at some techniques that help make the associated behaviors more manageable.

The Temperament Project

Did you know that the Sioux Empire United Way in partnership with Avera Children’s offers parents the opportunity to learn more about their child’s temperament? Through this free program, parents can fill out a temperament questionnaire about their child. The information is then tabulated and the parent receives written information and a temperament profile—a graph that visually shows how the child exhibits each temperament trait. Parents can also attend free classes on temperament or schedule a free one-on-one consult in-person, by telephone or by email. All mothers who deliver at Avera McKennan will automatically receive an invitation to participate when their baby is about nine or 10 months old, but you can do a temperament profile anytime.

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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