Temperament and Self-regulation

A pouting young girl in pigtails peeks around from behind a door.Anyone who has more than one child will tell you it is nothing short of amazing how such very different people can be born of the same two parents.  But it’s true. Babies seem to come into this world each with their own unique attitude. Called ‘temperament’, that inborn personality has an effect on how they respond to their world.

Temperament, says Leigha MacNeill, of the Pennsylvania State University, is “a biologically rooted and relatively stable disposition that contributes to how infants and children experience, express, and regulate their emotions.”

A baby’s inborn disposition encompasses such things as cheerfulness (positive affect), busyness (level of activity), risk-taking, sensitivity, and their response to discomfort (negative affect).  Variations in all of these areas are what make us all uniquely us.

Every baby is different

A child’s temperament affects how they respond to caregivers, how they navigate their environment and their receptiveness to new experiences. It also affects the development of self-regulation, a key component of executive function.

Executive function is important in helping us control and regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions.  It includes things such as self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – skills necessary for success at school and in the work force. 

“Self -regulation,” says Amanda Morin at Understood.org, “allows kids to manage their emotions, behavior and body movement when they’re faced with a situation that’s tough to handle. And it allows them to do that while still staying focused and paying attention.”

These differences impact the development of self-regulation

Differences in temperament can mean that some children struggle with self-regulation.  Says Dr. Matthew Rouse, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “Problems with self-regulation manifest in different ways depending on the child. Some kids are instantaneous — they have a huge, strong reaction and there’s no lead-in or build-up. They can’t inhibit that immediate behavior response.

A child’s innate capacities for self-regulation are temperament and personality-based,” he explains. “Some babies have trouble self-soothing and get very distressed when you’re trying to bathe them or put on clothes. Those kids may be more likely to experience trouble with emotional self-regulation when they’re older.”

Tailoring parenting styles to the child’s temperament can help the child in their self-regulation journey

What does this mean for parents?  What if you have one child who is easy to calm, cheerfully embracing new experiences, waiting patiently for their turn, or accepting that their hoped-for result is not in the cards.  While another is reluctant to try the new activity, has difficulty not grabbing the toy they want to play with, and devolves into hysterics when they don’t get their way. 

Adapting your parenting style to the unique temperament of each child can support them as they work to develop greater self-control and self-regulation. 

For the child who has trouble controlling their impulses, helping them build their awareness of the emotions they are feeling can help them develop self-regulation.  Talking ahead of time about possible scenarios can help them work through the ‘what ifs’ before their emotions are affecting their thinking and reactions.

Practicing in a low-stress environment can also help children build their self-regulation skills.  Childmind.org offers this helpful advice: “Dry runs are another way to scaffold self-regulation. For instance, if you’ve had trouble with a child reacting impulsively or having a tantrum in a store, make a short visit when you don’t need to do serious shopping. Have her practice walking with you, keeping her hands to herself. She gets points towards some goal every time she is successful.”

A happy girl rides in a shopping cart at the grocery storeBut don’t give up if it takes time.  Says Dr. Rouse, “Parents get discouraged when things don’t go well the first time they try skill-building, but consistency and starting at a level that is appropriate for your child are key. Rather than giving up, try paring down the activity so it is more doable, and slowly give your child more and more independence to handle it. Breaking things into small steps allows them to build self-regulation skills in manageable increments.”

For more tips on helping kids develop self-regulation and coping skills, visit Understood.org.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.