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What are the 9 Traits of Temperament?

You can thank Drs. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess for identifying the 9 traits of temperament which help you understand why children act and respond the way they do. They began their study in 1956 and followed a group of children through 1977. They were able to divide the children into three clear types, easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm-up, plus a 4th type which was a mixture of these types.

There have been other researchers who have slightly different models, focusing more on areas such as schools, and certain other concerns like risk of a child developing anxiety disorders.

Since your main question is usually “why”, the Thomas and Chess model is the easiest to use to answer that question.

Let’s look at the 9 traits:

ACTIVITY:

You have your own natural rate that you like to move at. You may be an always on the go person, or someone who likes to take frequent breaks to recharge. You may thrive in situations where there is a lot of activity or you may prefer to be in places where the pace is slower.

This represents your trait of activity – the amount of energy you like to use to get a task done if no one is telling you to hurry up or slow down.

Think about when you are stressed. Do you prefer getting busy doing something – cleaning, eating, running, anything with motion? Or do you seek out places of solitude – reading a book, listening to music, doing meditation, or taking a nap? What if you are pushed by your spouse, friend, or boss to change your natural level of activity? Do you feel some internal stress and resistance? Most people do. And even if they can comply, they need to make up the difference in their needs later.

This is why high activity children appear to be oppositional when told to slow down. They try to, but the energy builds up inside, so that they likely only slow down slightly and struggle to keep it there.

The same is true of the low activity child. When he hears “Hurry up,” he may move from one mile per hour to two miles per hour, but you are wanting him to go to 25 miles per hour. He eventually falls to the ground in tears because his inside energy levels have run out.

RHYTHMICITY: Do people describe you as organized, prompt, and dependable? Or do they comment on your lack of time sense? Do you struggle to keep up, to stay organized? Is your sleep schedule consistent or scattered? 

These are all aspects of rhythmicity – how well your inside clock matches up with the outside world.

Your child may be very picky about where things go, and being predictable as to when he is hungry, tired, or ready to get up. It shows up in the ability to keep his room neat and get his chores or homework done on time, without hounding.  Or your child may always lose everything, never knows how long it takes to get something done, and usually is late at it.

The more stressed these children are, the more of their type of rhythmicity trait you will have to deal with.

ADAPTABILITY:

How well do you handle change?  Do you go with the flow? Do you enjoy surprises and spontaneous adventures? Or do you wish you had advanced warning? Or better yet just keep to the schedule as is?

The ability to be adaptable is important in life, but also needed is the ability to have some expectations of staying with the plan.

Children who are slow to adapt frequently get upset and start asking “Why?” And the whys could be “Why me?” “Why now?” and “Why this way?” They find it hard to see what will happen if they don’t have all the answers and fear that disaster, of some kind, will happen if they just “Do it because I said so.”

Children who are too adaptable can have problems too. They will frequently get into trouble with siblings or friends by not asking enough questions when a “great idea” occurs for an adventure. This is when they may be talked into vandalism, sneaking out of the house at night, and other activities.

APPROACHABILITY:

Are you the life of the party? Do you feel as if everybody is your next best friend? Or do you only have a small group of friends, who you would trust with your life? Do you like going to parties and vacations to meet new people? Or do you find it difficult to be comfortable in larger gatherings, even if it is family?

Approachability describes how easy or difficult it is for you to get comfortable with new people or situations. Some people have never met a stranger. Others take a long time to let others become part of their inner circle of friends.

Children who are not very approachable are often called withdrawal. They frequently stay back when going to new situations, such as birthday parties, the first days of school, and meeting people on the street. They can melt down if pushed to join other kids before getting comfortable. But, given time to size up the situation, they will eventually join in. But it must be on their timeframe.

Children who are exceptionally approachable can be fun to have. They can scare you, however, because they don’t distinguish between safe and unsafe people to go to or talk to. These children can get terribly upset if their forwardness isn’t appreciated by some other children, since they don’t know why they wouldn’t be liked.

INTENSITY OF RESPONSE:

Are you a person who is very expressive of whatever you are feeling at the time? Or would people describe you as a mystery, not knowing if you are happy, sad, bored, or mad?

Intensity of response refers to how much we show of any emotion at a certain time. Some people are very intense, like drama queens. Others appear to not have very visible emotions and can be described as either aloof or a solid person in times of chaos.

Children who are intense are hard on parents because they always overreact to even the littlest things. On the other hand, children with low intensity are hard to read and may be in pain without letting you know. They are also accused of not showing sufficient gratitude when given a gift or something else special.

BASIC MOOD:

When someone asks you to go to a new movie, or to a farmer’s market, what is your first impression? Wonderful, or what will there be to do? I don’t know if I will like it or I have always wanted to see what farmer’s markets are like?

Some people look forward with positive anticipation of new situations, or unexpected changes in plan. Others are the original cloud finders (rather than silver lining finders). They must ask many “What if…” questions before they are willing to try the new or unusual or accept a change in plans.

Children with negative basic moods are frustrating to work with because they have so many “What if…” questions that need to be answered before, or if, you can ever do the activity. You can’t understand why they must overanalyze everything.

The positive basic mood child, however, jumps right in with comments such as “This is going to be so great,” or “I know I will win.” The problem is that they don’t take any time to analyze what is needed for a good outcome to occur. They can frequently be disappointed.

PERSISTENCE:

How efficient are you at completing tasks? Are you able to multitask? Or do you need to do one thing at a time? Do you need to have the task be interesting or positively challenging to stay with it?

There are 3 types of persistence profiles. The first group can persist only if the activity is interesting or can be made interesting, such as creating challenges or putting it to music. The second group can persist if they understand what they are doing. Once they hit a spot that they can’t figure out, they stop and try to find something else to do. The third group keeps persisting even when they should take a break or to do a different task. This group struggles to multitask.

Children who struggle at persisting need help figuring out why this is so and create plans to do if they hit a wall. The super-persisters, need to be taught to break projects up into sections. When done with one section, they are then taught to do a section of another task, or the entire task if it is short.

DISTRACTIBILITY:

Are you able to briefly notice a change going on around you but quickly shift your attention back to what you are doing? Or do you feel as if your attention is bouncing all over the place, leading to nothing getting done? Of course, you could be the person who gets hyperfocused, not noticing the house burning down around you. You become very irritated that others want you to attend to more than one thing at a time.

Your ability to pay attention to what you are doing and to stop attending to unimportant changes, such as sounds, smells, or movements, around you are important for staying on top of your day. It is also important to be able to shift your attention if an important situation arises, such as a child screaming after using a knife in the kitchen.

Some children are born with very short attention spans, meaning that they can’t decide what is important to pay attention to and so keep shifting attention, much like the dog in the movie, UP, when he sees a squirrel.

Other children tend to hyperfocus on what they are doing, frustrating parents and teachers alike because they don’t recognize when they are being called.

SENSORY THRESHOLD:

How quickly do you notice sensory changes? By that I mean smells, sounds, tastes, temperature, movement, and how something feels, such as texture? There are people who can smell an odor that no one else notices. There are people who can taste a food and know exactly what spices or herbs have been used. But there are also people who can’t tell the difference between chicken or steak. Some people don’t notice changes outside like the temperature falling, the sun going down, or rain starting.

Our sensory threshold is important for letting us know about the world around us and provide us with information on what is good (like chocolate chip cookies) and bad (the skunk walking by) allowing us to react as needed.

Children who are very sensitive to sensory changes can be overwhelmed easily, such as to sound or how food tastes. These children frustrate you because what they are complaining about is barely noticed by you.

Or they have a very high sensory threshold, which means that it takes a higher level of sensory change for them to notice or react. This could be seen with a child who can’t tell if he has been hurt, because it was not “painful enough,” or who will eat food that is bad because they can’t taste the difference.

These 9 traits are not good or bad. They just are. And how your temperament trait level interacts with your child’s trait level will lead to either a comfortable relationship, or one filled with frustration and confusion. If the latter, you’re learning more about these traits and being willing to adjust how you interact with your child will allow your relationship to grow.

There will be more articles on temperament with different ideas on how to work through your differences, and maybe even help you with your traits if they create pain and frustration in your life.

If you are interested in an in-depth look at 3 factors of children and adolescents that can create positive or negative futures, check out my program, Never Assume: Know Children Before Labeling Them.

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