Understanding your child’s temperament

by | Jun 26, 2020

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Psychologists view temperament and personality as two separate constructs when it comes to better understanding individuals. Though temperament and personality are related to each other, they do not refer to the same thing, writes Dr Jo-Marie Bothma, clinical psychologist and play therapist.

Temperament refers to the different characteristics, qualities and aspects of an individual’s personality that they are born with. These characteristics are not learned and are both innate and enduring and appear to be relatively stable from birth onwards.

These are a child’s ‘factory installed default settings’ so to speak and organise the child’s approach to the world around them. This means that a baby is born with a specific temperament and that those traits tend to still be there when they are older.

Personality, on the other hand, refers to what arises within an individual and is acquired on top of the temperament. One can say that a child’s personality is determined by the interaction of the temperament traits with the environment.

The personality of a child can be acquired over years and factors such as education, socialisation, various pressures or difficulties in life, and many other aspects can affect the personality of a child. Temperament is said to be a natural instinct, whereas personality is being developed.

Temperament knowledge can make you a better parent

There is no right or wrong temperament. It is important for children to be accepted for who they are. Some temperaments are definitely easier to handle than others and this might be so just because the fit between a parent and a child’s temperament works out great.

Most parents, however, experience times where they struggle to raise a child with a specific temperament. A parent with an intense, reactive child or a child who is very shy and slow to warm up, will tell you that parenting these children can be a challenge at times.

There could be a range of possible reasons for this. The child’s temperament traits may remind the parent of parts of themself that they don’t like so much and want to change. Conversely, the parent may feel discomfort with ways in which the child is different from the parent. It is quite normal that you will like and feel more comfortable with some aspects of your child’s temperament than with others.

The goal should never be to try and change your child’s temperament. It is rather to help your child make the most of their unique temperament – both their strengths and the areas where they may need more support. Often, however, parents need to learn, grow and develop in themselves to become better parents if the temperament fit between themselves and their children creates tension.

The fact remains that parents do play an enormous role in nurturing the temperament of a child, just as parents can help in providing the ideal environment for a child’s personality to develop. How well a child’s temperament fits with their environment will play an imperative role in how a child sees themselves and others. These are the very first building blocks for a healthy self-image and a foundation for emotional intelligence.

Parents literally can shape their child’s approach to the world by their interactions with their child. For example, children who are temperamentally loud, impatient and busy can learn to delay instant gratification and talk softly when their parents help them sensitively and consistently model a different approach.

When parents understand the temperament of their children, they can avoid blaming themselves or their child for issues that are normal for their child’s temperament. Parents will, for example, better understand how their child responds to certain situations and they can then anticipate issues that might present difficulties for their child. They can prepare the child for the situation or in other cases they may avoid a potentially difficult situation altogether.

A child who is cautious and needs time to feel comfortable in new situations will feel a whole lot less stressed being accompanied by a parent who supports and comforts the child before and during an outing. Chances are also better that this child will feel so secure after a while that they will explore and wander away from the parent once some adjustment phase has been allowed.

Parents can also shape their parenting strategies to the particular temperamental characteristics of the child. Knowledge about basic patterns of behaviours with each temperament style can make parenting a whole lot less stressful. Parenting becomes more predictable (and even enjoyable!) once a parent comes to understand that some temperaments are noisier than others, some are cuddlier than others, some have more regular sleep patterns than others, and some children need more alone time. Parents feel more effective at parenting as they learn more about their children’s temperaments and come to fully understand and appreciate each unique little human in their care.

Understanding your child’s unique temperament

There are several temperament profiles being used these days. Some profiles are more complicated than others, but each offers a valuable contribution to the understanding of human behaviour and thought patterns.

Hippocrates made use of a fourfold classification system that has since been researched extensively throughout the ages and makes it easy for a parent who wants to determine their child’s temperament. Parents only need to understand the differences between the four groups to be able to determine their child’s unique temperament style.

The table provides a short basic description of each of the four temperament styles.


Sanguine Choleric




Distractible and on the move

Full of smiles

Silly and easily excited


Easily trust others





Tries to master tasks alone

Demanding and impatient

Prefers leading


Strong will

Melancholic Phlegmatic
Analytical and wise

Quiet and shy

Careful and uncertain

Enjoys routine

Selfdom naughty

Fears strangers


Demands care and comfort

Can whine when tired

Relaxed and peaceful

Enjoys to watch people


Sleeps more than others


Demands little stimulation


Lazy to reach milestones

Withdraws from noise


Using temperament knowledge to connect with your child

Once a parent has a basic idea of their child’s temperament, they can use this knowledge to not only better understand their child, but to also better connect with their child. Children not only feel worthy and loved when they have healthy connections with their parents, but they also tend to be easier to get along with and can make parenting more pleasant.

Sanguine children feel connected to their parents when they can have fun with them and when they feel accepted. They enjoy being cuddled and hugged and treasure the moments where they can have good laughs and share jokes.

Choleric children value parents who are loyal to them and approve of what they are doing. They blossom when they receive credit for their achievements and feel connected during times where they can playfully compete during games.

Melancholic children attach meaning to relationships where their sensitive emotions are accepted and towards those that respect their time and space. They feel especially connected to a parent that supports them.

Phlegmatic children cherish relationships where they are not pressured to perform and where stress is kept to the minimum. They feel connected when their parents spend time with them without any criticism or conditions.

There is no better way to feel empowered and ready to navigate the world out there, than when a child experiences a healthy connection with their parents. It forms the security base they can explore from.