difficult toddler

The Three Broad Constellations of Temperament and Their Impact 

In my last blog I invited you to explore the idea of temperament, its definition, the history of its study and the 10 continuums on which it is measured in children. It can be a very helpful concept to appreciate and can explain so much about why each child behaves as they do.

While it can be enlightening to have the 10 continuums to consider for each child, it can simplify things to learn about the three constellations Chess, Thomas and Birch developed. They determined that there are three groups of children with basically similar traits.  They described the groupings as constellations.  These constellations are: the “easy child,” the “slow to warm child,” and the “difficult child.”

These researchers found evidence that these traits or characteristics, as measured in young infants, continued to be manifested into their adult lives. These traits can be modified by their interactions with their environment, including school, peer, and particularly parent-child interactions. While as children matured, that increase in maturity helped children monitor, regulate and control those traits that previously seemed more extreme, the basic underlying traits remained.

For example, a child who temperamentally was clearly slow-to-warm might learn coping techniques and over time could become more confident and self-assured so as an adult, they appear to be less slow-to-warm. It still probably requires more effort to sustain the outward behaviors of a person who more easily adapts than in someone who temperamentally was always more comfortable in new situations.

The difficult child is characterized by irregularity in biological functions, a strong withdrawal response to new stimuli, poor adaptability to change, a predominately negative mood, and a high intensity of response, whether positive or negative. Such a child may have irregular and unpredictable eating and sleeping patterns, slow acceptance of new foods, or a prolonged adjustment period to new routines, people, or situations. They often look serious, may have frequent and loud periods of crying, and dramatically strong temper tantrums or reactions to frustrations. Expression of positive mood is also loud and forceful.

This child is often difficult to parent, creating stress in the family and taxing the parents’ and caregivers’ resources for coping.  It’s important to remember these traits are difficult for the child themself as well as for their parents or caregivers.

The slow-to-warm child is similar to the difficult child but differs in that they are less irregular, have a less negative mood and are moderate in their reactions. Their main feature is slow adaptability and they are often considered shy. This child can evoke frustration on the part of their parent, caregiver, or teacher. When given enough time to re-experience new situations and changes without undue pressure, the slow-to-warm child can show quiet and positive interest and involvement.

The easy child is characterized by a generally positive mood, an approach reaction to new stimuli, easy adaptability, mild reactivity, and regular biological functions.  This child quickly develops regular sleeping and eating patterns, takes to new foods easily, smiles at strangers, and smoothly makes transitions into school.  They accept the rules of a new game without much debating and in general ride through most frustrations with little fuss. Parents and caregivers often label the easy child as “good,” and feel competent and positive being their parent or caregiver.

Various studies have shown that the difficult and easy temperament clusters exist in children in a variety of countries and cultures.

Not all children fit into these three constellations or clusters of traits. Research has shown that approximately 10% of children are “difficult,” 15% are “slow to warm-up,” and 40% are “easy.”  The remaining 35% of children fall on the continuums of traits in individual patterns. When a child is especially high or low on any continuum, it can make that child “difficult” in relation to that particular trait.

For example, a generally easy child may have a low sensory threshold and be bothered by loud noises, smells, rough textures, strong tastes or being touched. He may be particularly perceptive to the emotions of others.  A persistent child, without other classically difficult traits, may seem stubborn and get “locked-in” to such behaviors as whining, nagging, or endless negotiating. Parents or caregivers of children with these or other extreme temperament traits often experience their child as “difficult” and express feeling unprepared, inadequate, or guilty about their own inability to respond more positively to this child.

Hopefully this information about these constellations provides you with some important information that can help you better understand why each of your children behaves as they do. It is easier to be accepting of a child if you understand the underlying reasons for their behaviors. I’m very grateful to the researchers for their hard work in establishing that each human being is born with a temperament that can explain more about why they behave as they do.

In my next blog, I will share some valuable information about “Goodness of Fit” which focuses on how parents and caregivers’ temperament interacts with the various temperament categories presented in this blog.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Did learning this information clarify some of the reasons for the ways your child or children behave? If that child has a more difficult temperament or even is slow to warm, did the information help you feel more accepting of behaviors that are sometimes challenging?
  2. If you happen to have a child who is in the easy category, did the information help you appreciate that other parents or caregivers may have greater challenges than you do?
  3. Can you think of friends or family members you might share this information with to help them better understand why each child in their life may behave in ways that reflect their temperament? How do you think that might impact them and impact the relationship with their children?