One of a kind

One of a kind
From birth, your child reacts to situations and expresses his needs in his own way. His temperament is already evident!

From birth, your child reacts to situations and expresses his needs in his own way. His temperament is already evident!

Your child’s temperament determines how he will react, adapt to situations, express and control his emotions and also how he will connect with others. In short, the way your baby behaves will largely depend on his inherited temperament.

But even if it is present from birth and based on genetics, each child’s temperament is unique to him. Brothers 5-year-old Eliot and 3-year-old Zack are a case in point. The eldest was a calm baby, who didn’t cry or smile much. “It was a little harder to connect with him,” remembers mom Émilie. “He was a serious tot.” Zack was more expressive. He babbled a lot and smiled at anything. Today, he’s an adventurous little boy who gets excited by anything that’s new, and he has a hard time staying still. Eliot is still just as serious as he always was. He’s loving, helpful and a little shy, and he also has an excellent attention span.

The characteristics of temperament

The words used by researchers to explain temperament are not always the same, but generally speaking, there are two main components to a child’s temperament:

  1. Reactivity. For example, how a child reacts to novelty (food, places, people, activities, objects, etc.) is an aspect of his temperament. Is he happy, hesitant or cranky? The ability to adapt to change also falls under this category. Some babies adapt quickly, others, more slowly. Temperament can also be expressed as moods. Some children smile more and are often cheerful. Others express more negative emotions; they cry, and they’re irritable and angry.
  2. Ability to control impulses. This is a child’s ability to self-regulate, meaning, for instance, to resist the temptation to touch a forbidden object, to do something he doesn’t really feel like doing, or even to stay calm in a public place. This aspect also refers to his ability to concentrate and pay attention. When a child performs an activity that requires concentration, is he easily distracted by noise or by what’s happening around him? Can he stay focused on a task for a long time? Does he follow rules easily? The ability to control himself will develop throughout his early childhood years.

Can your baby change?

Little 10-month-old Loïc is usually in a good mood and seems happy when facing novelty. “When we bring him to a new place, he smiles and fidgets for us to let him go and explore,” says dad Jean-Sébastien. Despite his young age, the little boy is even starting to be able to control some of his impulses. For example, his parents let him handle their mobile phone, but they don’t want him to put it in his mouth. “Lately, he’s been bringing it up to his mouth, but then he looks at me and waits for my reaction,” says his mom, Rachel.

Loïc’s temperament and the way his parents care for him influence one another. Studies have shown, for example, that parents have an easier time warming up to children who are happy or who follow rules. This reaction is understandable since “a child with an easy temperament makes parents in some way feel rewarded for the care they provide,” explains Catherine Ruth Solomon Scherzer, a professor with Université de Montréal’s Psychology department.

On the flip side, children with more difficult temperaments (who often cry or have temper tantrums) can discourage parents or try their patience. Again, this reaction is normal since these children are more demanding for parents.

Even if a child’s reactions and behaviours are difficult, you need to understand that his temperament isn’t written in stone and that it doesn’t determine his future. “With a positive attitude, parents can help their toddlers improve their temperament,” explains Andrée-Anne Bouvette-Turcot, PhD student in psychology at Université de Montréal. “Temperament evolves with experience,” she says. “A child with a very reactive temperament can, in fact, learn to calm his more intense emotions if his life environment is stimulating and reassuring, and if he has a strong sense of attachment to his parents.”

Knowing how to adapt to your child

Even if it doesn’t completely disappear, a more challenging trait can become less apparent. For example, an impulsive child can learn to better control his impulses. As a parent, you can help your toddler improve his temperament. “It might, for example, be tempting to ignore the tears of a baby who cries a lot and who is difficult to comfort, but what this type of baby is more likely to need is a quick and warm response to feel reassured,” says Ginette Dionne, professor at Université de Laval’s School of Psychology. When parents answer this need by rocking their baby, rubbing his back or cuddling him, they teach him that he can trust them in addition to strengthening the child’s sense of attachment to them. On the other hand, if they ignore their baby, he risks becoming even more irritable and impatient.

It’s possible to tone down a baby’s angry and fearful temperament by being calm, warm and reassuring.

The same goes for a child who often gets angry. “If you get angry back, you risk encouraging this troublesome behaviour,” says Catherine Ruth Solomon Scherzer. It’s best to try to remain calm, instead, and to talk to him once the tantrum is over, to help him put what he is feeling into words.

Adapting your reactions to your child’s temperament can also help him learn to live in society. This is what 5-year-old Eliot’s parents observed when he started to be afraid of new things. Instead of overprotecting him, they tried to build his confidence by reassuring him and encouraging him to press forward. “Before he started his skating lessons, we prepared him by explaining to him what to expect,” says dad Cédric. Mom Émilie adds, “When we’re at a restaurant or with a person he doesn’t know very well, we also encourage him to speak for himself. This summer, we sent him to buy some bread by himself at the campground convenience store. He was so proud. In fact, he seems to have gained confidence these last few months.”

Many characteristics are developed in mommy’s tummy. This is as true for physical traits as it is for psychological traits. Researchers from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute have shown that the mental health of the expecting mom can change the ways the genes work in the unborn child. The pregnant woman’s mood affects regions of the baby’s brain that are linked to stress and emotion control. So when an expectant mom is depressed or overly anxious, the baby she is carrying has a greater risk of suffering from anxiety, stress and even attention deficit after birth. The good news is all this can change. If mom gets better, the child receives the appropriate care and grows up in a loving family, then his mental health is less likely to be affected.

Also, if your child has a very active temperament, the best thing to do is to provide him with ample opportunities to move, especially before outings or activities where he’ll need to stay still. This could help him develop his ability to stay calm when required.

Naître et grandir

Source: Magazine Naître et grandir, November 2015
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Jean-Pascal Lemelin, professor with the Department of Psychoeducation at Université de Sherbrooke, and Dr. Bruno Maranda, medical geneticist at the Centre hospitalier universitaire de Sherbrooke

Photo: Martine Lavoie