How to Tailor Discipline to Your Child's Temperament

A mom and toddler holding hands

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Have you ever noticed how two children from the same family can be drastically different? One child might be a happy, easy-going child who is eager to please while the other one might be cranky, defiant, and attention-seeking.

Clearly, behavior differences don't always stem from the environment. Each child is born with a unique temperament. As a parent, it's important to tailor your discipline strategies to your child's individual needs.

Traits That Make Up Temperament

A child's personality differs from their temperament. Personality refers to attributes such as intelligence and abilities, while temperament only refers to in-born traits.

Researchers have found a child’s temperament is made up of nine traits:

Activity Level. Does your child tend to be very active, moderately active, or inactive compared to other children their age?

Regularity. Does your child seem to have a natural tendency to have a routine? Does your child want to eat and sleep at the same times each day?

Approach or Withdrawal. Does your child enjoy trying new things and meeting new people? Or do they prefer to observe others and hang back when presented with new situations?

Adaptability. How quickly does your child adjust to changes? Do they adapt quickly or become upset if their schedule is changed?

Intensity of Reaction. How much of an emotional reaction does your child show when they experiences positive and negative situations?

Threshold of Responsiveness. How does your child react to sensory stimulation such as tastes, textures, smells, and sounds?

Distractibility. Can your child stay focused on a task or are they easily distracted by noises or activity going on around them?

Attention Span and Persistence. Is your child able to work on a task until it is completed or do they tend to give up or lose interest before it’s finished? How do they handle transitioning from one activity to the next?

Quality of Mood. Does your child seem to be in a fairly good mood most of the time, or does their mood shift often and seem dependent on whatever is going on around them?

Temperament Categories

Based on these traits, researchers have developed three main categories of temperament for kids.

Keep in mind that researchers also noted that about 35% of kids don’t fit into any one category; rather, they're a combination of more than one temperament.

Easy or Flexible (40%). Kids who are considered to be “easy going” have the most stable moods and a positive outlook on life. They are fairly flexible with changes to their routine and are not disturbed by new experiences. Their routines are fairly predictable.

Active or Difficult (10%). Active or difficult kids are often considered to be “moody.” Their routines are less predictable. They dislike changes to their routine and may be fearful of meeting new people. They tend to be very sensitive to stimulation, such as loud noises or certain textures. They also exhibit dramatic reactions to things that they dislike.

Slow to Warm (15%). Slow-to-warm kids are less active, can be 'fussy,' and are more fearful of new people and situations. With gradual exposure, they can warm up to new things if they are given ample time to observe and learn before participating.

Finding a Good Fit With Discipline

It's important to match your discipline strategy to your child’s temperament. For example, praise can be effective with a slow-to-warm child because it can motivate them to try new activities.

A child who is slow to warm may also respond well to a reward system that provides further motivation and encouragement.

Active or difficult children might respond best to ignoring, time out, or loss of a privilege. A token economy system can also be a good discipline tool, as it encourages good behavior while maintaining a difficult child's attention.

Easy or flexible kids do well with a variety of discipline strategies. A combination of positive and negative consequences can be effective behavior management tools.

Before you decide how to discipline your child, consider their unique needs. Then, strive to match your interventions to their individual temperament.

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  • Mathewson K, Tang A, Fortier P, Miskovic V, Schmidt L. Individual Differences in Temperament: Definition, Measurement, and Outcomes. Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology. September 2016.
  • Prokasky A, Rudasill K, Molfese VJ, Putnam S, Gartstein M, Rothbart M. Identifying Child Temperament Types Using Cluster Analysis in Three SamplesJournal of Research in Personality. October 2016. 

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.