Understanding Temperament

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In his book The Developing Mind; How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, 2nd ed. (2012), renowned child psychiatrist and UCLA Professor of Psychiatry Daniel J. Siegel writes: “In an era when science is enabling us to understand human experience in new ways, it is important to examine the common debate about how much of development and personality can be attributed to ‘nature’ or genetics, as opposed to ‘nurture’ or experience.” (p. 30) Basically, Siegel goes on to discuss how genetics (nature) determine the brain-body structure, while experience (nurture) influences neural-hormonal functioning. Siegel writes: “(Each) individual’s history reflects an inseparable blend of how the environment, random events, gender, and temperament all contribute to the creation of experiences in which adaptation and learning recursively shape the development of the mind.” (p. 31) But, this post is not about Daniel Siegel or his seminal book. I use his words to introduce some thoughts about the “nature” side of the nature-nurture issue; specifically – “temperament.”

As is often the case, the reading of one book leads to the reading of another book, etcetera. In my case, eager to improve my therapeutic work with children and teens, I began reading Schroeder and Gordon’s Assessment & Treatment of Childhood Problems, 2nd ed. (2002). The authors offer up early in the book this observation – and recommendation: “Questioning parents or other caregivers about a child’s early temperament may shed light on current problems with behavior and interpersonal relationships. A recent book for parents, Understanding Your Child’s Temperament (1997), may be helpful in preventing problems related to child temperament.” (p. 11) Now you know where this post is headed.

Authored by esteemed pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, William B. Carey, Understanding Your Child’s Temperament ; rev. ed. (2005) is an excellent and easy-to-read book. Categorizing nine possible ways of looking at temperament (what he defines as behavioral patterns, or “styles of behavior”), Carey identifies the following nine temperament traits: Activity, Regularity, (Initial) Reaction, Adaptability, Intensity, Mood, Persistence and Attention Span, Distractibility, and Sensitivity. To facilitate my information-giving with kids and families, I grouped Carey’s nine categories into a poorly-clustered mnemonic aid, using the first letter of each trait: A-R-R / A-I-M / P-D-S. The first two clusters conjured up for me images of pirates (A-R-R) taking A-I-M at another ship, but don’t ask me what P-D-S means; public display of savagery, maybe? At any rate, Carey, urges parents and other caregivers to record observations of their child(ren)’s temperament traits (behavioral patterns). Urging the use of a separate piece of paper for each trait, Carey writes: “As objectively as you can, watch, listen, and describe the pattern of how your child responds to particular people, settings, and circumstances. Think of this notebook as a journal you might take on a trip. Or, think of yourself as a reporter who does not know this child, as someone who is an impartial, detached, but watchful witness.” (p. 31) The result is what Carey calls a “Temperament Profile.” He admits that “all nine traits are present in children to varying degrees” (p. 35), but it’s the variations you’re looking for in each category; the highs and lows and average variations per category. Once we have a clearer understanding of a child’s temperament, we can begin to improve our fit with better parenting and/or caregiving techniques. Carey observes: “You cannot…hammer the undesirable traits out of a child through rigid discipline, bribery, attempts at reasonable persuasion, or other tried-and-failed methods. You can learn to accept those traits and – at the same time – develop alternative ways to manage your child’s temperament to reach the immediate objective: reduced stress and increased harmony in parent-child interactions.” (p. 87)

The more I read–and used with young clients and their families–Carey’s “Temperament Profile,” the more it occurred to me that such observational learning of people and their temperament (a.k.a behavior patterns/styles of relating) could lead to reduced stress and increased harmony in ALL interpersonal interactions; thus, the title of this blog post: “Understanding Temperament”.

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