Everything You Need To Know About Toddler Temperaments

Learning about your toddler’s temperaments can help you organize your days to run smoothly

I remember sitting in church with my one-year-old, Matthew. He was bouncing on my lap, wriggling around, trying to grab the hymn books in their pockets on the back of the pew and never sitting still for a second.

As I wrestled with Matthew, trying to keep him from escaping, I glanced over at the pew across the aisle where my friend Mary sat with her daughter Shari, just a month older than my son. Shari was sitting placidly on her mother’s lap, quietly looking around. Mary smiled at me. I wondered what I was doing wrong.

The truth is, I wasn’t doing anything wrong at all. Matthew and Shari might have been the same age, but they had very different temperaments. Matthew was a very active child, Shari was less so. Both normal, just different.

Researchers Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess studied infants and older children and found that many personality traits seemed to be inherited and to stay with a person throughout their lives. For each trait, an individual child may score high or low. So Matthew would have scored high on activity, while Shari would have scored low. In a different trait—say sensitivity—Shari might score higher and Matthew lower. Knowing which traits are stronger helps you better understand your toddler’s behaviour.

These are some of the traits Thomas and Chess identified and what they look like in toddlers:

Activity: the active toddler needs to move and finds it hard to sit still, while the child who scores lower on this may need more opportunities to rest and sit quietly.

Persistence: some toddlers never give up. You stop them from sticking a pen in a socket and they go look for another socket to try. You say “no cookies before supper” and they come back every two minutes to ask again. The less persistent toddler is easy to distract—give them a new toy and they forget about that enticing electrical socket.

Regularity: the regular toddler will be hungry around the same times every day and sleepy around the same time every night. It’s pretty easy to plan a schedule for this child. The irregular child might be ready for lunch at 11:00 one day and not until 12:30 the next day. He might be ready to sleep at 7:30 one night but still wide awake at 8:30 the next. Flexibility is the key for these little ones.

Sensitivity: your sensitive toddler is likely to be bothered by loud noises, scratchy fabrics, crowds and even strong emotions. The less sensitive child hardly notices things that cause great distress to the others. For a sensitive child, seams in socks can be a VERY BIG DEAL!

Intensity: the intense child has strong reactions, both positive and negative. When he’s happy, he’s singing and dancing and the whole world knows it. When he’s sad or upset—well, look out. The less intense child is more muted in his expression of his feelings. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel them—he just doesn’t express them as intensely.

Adaptability: the adaptable child will readily put down his toys and head off with you to visit Grandma or head to daycare. The less-adaptable child just can’t handle this transition and needs a lot of help to prepare for changing from one activity (playing with toys) to another (going to visit Grandma).

Initial Reaction: the toddler with an easy initial reaction to a new situation is eager to jump in and check things out. Other toddlers, though, always hold back in new situations and want to watch and wait for a while before getting involved.

If you match these traits to your toddler’s behaviour, it can help you organize for smoother days. If you know Jason isn’t great with transitions, you can plan in more time to get him ready for making those needed changes. And if he’s also an active child, you might need to include a chance to walk around the block in your plans.

You also might want to take a look at your own personality and how you fit into these categories. Do you match up with your child, or are there areas where you a different? Maybe you’ve been pushing him to jump right in to new situations, because that’s what you would do, when he’s really a kid who needs to sit back and watch for a while. The more you understand your child, the easier it is to understand what he needs from you.

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