Types and Traits: The Heart of Your Child’s Temperament

In my last post, I shared a bit about what temperament is and how it differs from personality. This week I want to give you a bit more history and introduce the commonly agreed upon temperament traits. Because what good does it do you to know that temperament is a thing if you don’t really understand how it works?

Temperament Characteristics

Temperament characteristics or traits are the specific facets of a person’s temperament as a whole. Psychologists agree upon nine different temperament traits, based on the work of Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas (1970). These traits include: activity or energy level, sensitivity (specifically sensory sensitivity), intensity of emotional response, rhythmicity or regularity (you could also think of this one as preference for routine), adaptability, initial reaction (how a child approaches new situations), persistence, distractability, predominant mood.

The way all of these traits work together is what determines a person’s temperament type and has a strong role in the development of their personality, too. If you want to read a little more about each trait, there are endless explanations online. I often refer back to this post when I need to refresh my memory.

Temperament Types

A person’s temperament type is based on the way their temperament traits work together to determine how they show up in the world from day one. When you hear parents talking about whether their baby was easy or fussy, they are usually talking about their temperament.

If you are familiar with Waldorf schools, you may have been introduced to four temperament types introduced by Hippocrates: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.

The Ayurvedic doshas could also be considered temperament types, and Chess and Thomas offer “easy,” “difficult,” and “slow to warm up” as the three primary temperament types based on their nine temperament traits. 

Is Highly Sensitive a Temperament Type or a Trait?

If you are a parent of a Highly Sensitive Child, or you are Highly Sensitive yourself, you may have noticed that sensitivity is one of the temperament traits, but is this the same thing as being highly sensitive? What about the fact that a lot of Highly Sensitive Children are emotionally sensitive or easily distractable?

Elaine N. Aron, Ph. D., author of both The Highly Sensitive Child and The Highly Sensitive Person, identifies this trait as the primary characteristic of Highly Sensitive People. She does note, though, that Thomas and Chess’s interpretation of sensitivity fails to look beyond the five senses; for many HSPs and HSCs, having a sensitive nervous system extends to deeper processing of experiences and all of the emotions that go alongside that. Essentially, HSPs and HSCs have nervous systems that take in more information and causes them to process things more deeply.

The extent of a person’s sensitivity influences their other temperament traits as well, which is why many HSPs and HSCs are also distractable and intensely emotional. The depth of processing means many HSCs and HSPs are highly persistent, too. The presence and variance in expression of the other eight temperament traits is the reason why there is so much variance between individual Highly Sensitive Children. Some may be “slow to warm up” while others draw the label of “difficult.” I try to stay away from those broader labels, though. They are based on our adult perceptions, and regardless of how challenged we are or how “shy” we perceive them to be, all HSCs have the power to thrive when they feel supported.

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