All parents wish they had an easy baby. Parents who have difficult babies often envy those who have easy ones. But research shows that having a child with a difficult temperament is actually not a bad thing. In this article, we will explain what temperament is and look at the three types of temperament.
As parents of multiple children already know, each child is different when they are born even though they are raised in the same home. Right from the beginning, newborns already show distinct styles of responding to the environment. Each of them has their individual infant temperament and baby personality.
What Is Temperament
Temperament is a child’s early-appearing variation in emotional responses and reaction to the environment.
Child temperament is a result of biological and environmental factors working together throughout a child’s development since conception rather than based entirely on genetics1,2.
There are different categorizations of temperament by different researchers. The most influential research is conducted by doctors and psychologists, Chess and Thomas3.
Their well-known New York Longitudinal Study lasted for several decades (1956-1988) and found 9 temperament traits that can be commonly identified in young children.
9 Temperament Traits (Thomas and Chess)
The level and extent of motor activity.
The rhythmicity, or degree of regularity, of functions such as eating, elimination and the cycle of sleeping and wakefulness.
3. Initial Reaction
The response to a new object or person, in terms of whether the child approaches the new experience or withdraws from it.
The adaptability of behavior to changes in the environment.
The threshold, or sensitivity, to stimuli.
The intensity, or energy level, of responses.
The child’s general mood or “disposition”, whether cheerful or given to crying, pleasant or cranky, friendly or unfriendly.
The degree of the child’s distractibility from what he is doing.
9. Attention span and persistence
The span of the child’s attention and his persistence in an activity.
Types Of Temperament
Among the nine types of temperament traits, researchers found that six of them, activity, regularity, initial reaction, adaptability, intensity, and mood, tend to cluster together to form three types of temperament.
The three types of children temperament styles are:
- easy temperament
- difficult temperament
- slow to warm up temperament
Easy temperament is characterized by regular bodily functions, positive approach to new situations, adaptability, positive mood and non-intense reaction to stimuli.
Raising these children is relatively easy because they respond favorably to various child-raising practices. They readily adapt to different parental handling.
Difficult temperament is characterized by irregular bodily functions, withdrawal from new situations, slow adaptability, negative mood, and intense reaction. Raising these children is difficult from the get-go.
But this is by no means the definition of being “difficult”. Parents know when they have difficult babies. These are babies who cry a lot. They cry hard, they cry loudly and they are hard to soothe. They are also cranky babies. It is hard to get them to fall asleep and stay asleep. When they wake up in the middle of the night, they have trouble going back to sleep. These difficult babies are also called colic, spirited, or high-needs babies.
Colic in babies is particularly frustrating for overwhelmed and exhausted parents.
Slow To Warm Up Temperament
The slow to warm child is characterized by low activity level and low intensity of reaction although they also have a tendency to withdraw from new situations, slow adaptability and somewhat negative in the mood.
These children can adapt to new situations if they’re allowed to do that at their own pace. However, if pressured to do so, these children may fall back to their natural tendency to withdraw.
Roughly 40% of babies have the easy temperament, 10% difficult and 15% slow to warm. 30% of children do not fall into any of the three identified types.
Is Easy Baby Better Than Difficult Baby?
There is no such thing as a good temperament or bad temperament.
If you have an easy baby, congratulations! You probably have more sleep than many other parents. We envy you!
But if you have a difficult one, you have more work cut out for you.
Caring for a difficult baby is exhausting and worrisome. The most worrisome aspect is perhaps the fact that difficult baby temperament is associated with more behavioral problems and emotional disorders later in life4,5.
However, do not despair if you have a difficult baby. There is actually good news for you.
Studies have shown that differential susceptibility plays a big role in a child’s outcome6. That means temperament by itself does not determine how a child will turn out because of its cross-over interaction with the environment7.
What Is Differential Susceptibility?
Differential susceptibility means young children with a difficult temperament are disproportionately affected by parenting. They react more (more susceptible or more sensitive) to the quality of parenting than easy children, for better and for worse.
When raised with good parenting, a difficult child tend to do better in cognitive, academic and social adjustment than their easy counterparts. On the other hand, when parenting is bad, a difficult baby will fare worse when they grow up.
So you should be thrilled if you have a difficult or sensitive baby. Your difficult child actually has a better chance to succeed, if you do your part in providing good parenting.
Child Temperament And Parenting Style
In studies on differential susceptibility, parenting quality is defined as good when parents show a high level of emotional and autonomy support. Bad parenting is when the parents show a low level of emotional and autonomy support8.
This definition is similar to one of the criteria used to categorize the four Baumrind’s parenting styles. Among the four styles, authoritative parenting, which provides high emotional and autonomy support, is the best according to numerous studies. It comes as no surprise that such parenting style also provides the most positive impact on difficult children.
And because of this differential susceptibility property, it is even more important for parents of difficult babies to adopt an authoritative parenting style.
Related: 4 Parenting Styles
Difficult Temperament And Tough Love Parenting
The relationship and influence between temperament and parenting are bidirectional9. Difficult temperaments tend to elicit a tough response and inconsistent discipline from parents10.
When a baby cries incessantly, you may have the urge to shout at them to stop. And when your difficult child yells at you, it is natural that you want to yell back.
Tough love parenting is therefore sometimes used by parents whose children have a difficult temperament.
According to research, low emotional support, e.g. tough-love parenting, tends to raise children who have worse outcomes. Studies find that there is less mental well-being among people raised by authoritarian parents11.
But you can often hear people who boast being raised by tough parents and turning out fine.
Why is there a discrepancy?
This difference in resilience can be explained by the Diathesis Stress Model.
According to the Diathesis-Stress Model, people who have a predisposition or vulnerabilities to suffer from a psychological disorder require a lower threshold to trigger the disorder.
So tough love is simply not the answer to raising children with a difficult temperament. It will only make things worse.
By remaining calm, responsive and sensitive, you may take a long time to get through to your child and the process may be painstaking, but the reward of being a good parent will be tremendous.
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- 2.Saudino K. Behavioral genetics and child temperament. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2005;26(3):214-223. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15956873.
- 3.Chess S. Temperament. Routledge; 2013. doi:10.4324/9780203766170
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- 9.Kiff CJ, Lengua LJ, Zalewski M. Nature and Nurturing: Parenting in the Context of Child Temperament. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. April 2011:251-301. doi:10.1007/s10567-011-0093-4
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