What are the dimensions of temperament?

Almost 50 years ago, researchers Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess studied 100 babies from early infancy to adulthood and identified 9 temperament traits, including persistence, intensity of reaction, activity level, and adaptability. Since that time, scientists have been able to refine our understanding and focus on five qualities of temperament, which the Program for Infant/Toddler Care describe as: 

1. Activity level: a person’s typical speed and intensity of movement. 

Do you or your child find it difficult to sit still, or find yourselves drawn to quieter activities? 

2. Reaction to the unexpected: a person’s cautiousness or distress in response to unfamiliar people, places or things. 

Do you or your child approach new people or situations with caution, or even distress?

3. Attention and regulation: a person’s usual level of ability to regulate or manage their emotions, energy level and attention. 

Is it hard to focus on one thing at a time…or is moving on from an engaging activity the hard part?

4. A person’s tendency to experience anger, irritability and frustration

Are you or your child often challenged by feeling angry, irritable or frustrated?

5. A person’s tendency to experience exuberance, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness

Are you or your child pretty likely to be joyful or content at any given moment? 

A person’s temperament may be higher or lower in any of these qualities.

 In addition, our emotional tendencies can be described in terms of: 

  • How intense feelings become—their intensity 
  • How easily feelings are triggered—their threshold
  • How long feelings tend to last—their duration 

For example: 

Evan is high in intensity, and low in threshold, and high in duration  typical experiences of anger, irritability and frustration: when he gets mad, he gets very mad, it doesn’t take much to anger them, and he needs lots of time to cool down. (See tips for supporting a child in learning to self-regulate.)

Nola, on the other hand, is also high in intensity and low in threshold for those same difficult feelings, but she’s also low in duration: she upsets easily, and her frustration is intense, but she tends to bounce back quickly.

What’s more, these emotional tendencies may be different for positive and negative emotions! Put all this together, and it’s clear that each of our children, and all adults too, are truly unique combinations of temperament tendencies. 

Our temperament tendencies influence the way we interact with other people and the world around us. Seeing how our child’s temperament “fits” their environment is the next step toward supporting our child’s capacity to thrive.

→ Next: What is “goodness of fit”?

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