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05-17 Understanding temperament: A primer for parents

Understanding temperament: A primer for parents

Temperament is a manner of behaving that is fairly consistent over time. As discussed in part 1 of this “Understanding temperament” series, temperament is closely related to personality. Understanding individual temperament can help parents realize that their children’s behavior should not be taken personally. Like hair color, people simply are the way they are. Parents can empower themselves by learning how to maximize positive interactions and minimize negative ones.

Behavioral patterns

No matter where a person ranks on any of the behavioral patterns below, there is no good or bad ranking. Each has positive and negative aspects, depending on the situation. Furthermore, rankings are used to understand temperament to bring out positive interactions, not to label anyone as good or bad.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics discusses nine behavioral patterns or characteristics that comprise temperament, temperament expert Sandra Graham McClowry, Ph.D., combined them into four, based on rigorous research findings and analyses.

Approach/withdrawal: Refers to how someone responds to new situations at first. Those who are high in approach tend to be outgoing, and those high in withdrawal tend to come across as shy.

Reactivity: Relates to how much and how often one perceives things negatively or positively. Reactivity is more than just pessimism or optimism.

Persistence: Refers to attention span and how one navigates distractions and barriers to goals. A child who is high in persistence and working on a puzzle may have a tantrum if he or she is interrupted to go do something else, but generally does well in school.

Activity: Motor activity is the level of physical energy and movement. Those who need a lot of external stimulation tend to be more restless or hyperactive to “stir things up” to the level they require. Those who are more sensitive may seek solitude when the environment gets too rowdy.


Detailed questions about behavior comprise McClowry’s School-age Temperament Inventory (SATI), which is available for parents to assess their children’s temperament. Once temperament is assessed, about 42 percent fit into one of the following categories:

  1. Industrious people are high in task persistence and react more positively to things than negatively. While they may not like to be interrupted, they can handle it. Sometimes they don’t speak up for themselves without help.
  2. Social/eager people are high in approach, very social and aim to please others.
  3. High-maintenance people are high in negative reactivity and activity. When task persistence is low, they may seem to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They are good leaders because they can stand up to other people and motivate others as well.
  4. Cautious/slow-to-warm-up people are high in withdrawal, but with support become more comfortable and positive.

Those who don’t fit into a category have a mixture of temperaments. Parents can still learn how to respond to children’s behavior once they understand their individual temperament.

Temperament can be determined at any age, but is most easily assessed in children. As people get older, they learn to modify their behavior to suit social norms, making accurate assessment more difficult. The complex interplay between adolescent temperament and that of parents, families, teachers, expanding social circles and puberty makes teen behavior particularly difficult to assess. Sometimes retrospective assessment, or thinking back on earlier behavior, is easier because temperament is fairly consistent over time (see part 1 of this series).

Bringing out the best in each other

Parents have their own temperament styles, just as their children do. Sometimes, parents and children naturally match and other times they clash. While children adapt somewhat to their parents’ temperaments, parents have the power to adapt their parenting styles according to their children’s temperaments.

For example, industrious individuals benefit from advance warnings before they need to stop what they are doing. Those who are social/eager might need an extra lesson in stranger danger. High-maintenance people may respond well to a behavioral contract and cautious children may need understanding and support.

Developing appropriate parenting styles and environments at home and at school may take time, but the rewards can be great. Even grown children can benefit from the support of a parent who understands them just the way that they are. It is never too late to demonstrate the love and acceptance that every child needs.

When things go wrong

Things can go wrong in spite of the best parenting and most supportive environment. Temperament assessment, even as early as infancy, can predict who may be at risk for developing problems later in life. What researchers have discovered about temperament, mental illness and substance use disorders will be discussed in part 3 of this series.

Getting help before things get worse is critical for those struggling with behavioral problems or substance use. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego treats adolescents with mental illness, substance use and dual diagnosis, and treats adolescent females with eating disorders. Our programs integrate state-of-the-art neurocognitive treatments with alternative approaches like experiential therapies. Experiential therapies help foster creative expression and help heal the spirit. To learn more about our specialized programs at Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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