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Discipline & Temperament

Dear Elizabeth,
I have a 3-year-old daughter & I take care of my 1-year-old niece. My niece is fussier than my daughter & she doesn’t respond to the same discipline strategies that I used with my daughter at the same age. Why?
Eva Jaramillo
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Recognize & respect your child’s temperament
  • Anticipate how your child will behave & plan ahead
  • Use strategies to help him learn appropriate behavior
  • There are no good or bad temperaments
Expert Advice
Sandee McClowry, Ph.D.
Sandee McClowry, Ph.D.
Psychology professor, New York
Based on her email, I suspect that the reason the same disciplinary strategy for Eva’s niece is not working as well as it does for her daughter, is because Eva’s daughter and niece have very different temperaments.

What is a Temperament?
Temperament is a lens through which we view and react to the world. It influences our perceptions, our behavior, and the way we interact with each other. Some people refer to temperament as personality. Most parents become a believer in temperament after they have a second child. For example, when my daughter, Allison, was little she was a cautious observer of the world. When I took her to a petting zoo when she was two years old, the baby animals frightened her. It wasn’t until I petted them that she felt comfortable enough to tentatively touch them. A few years later when my son, Sean, was the same age and was at the same petting zoo, my job was to protect the baby animals from his vigorous hugs.

Types of Temperament
When we explain temperament to parents and teachers, we use four puppets, each of which represents one of the four common temperament types. “Frederico the Friendly” is very social and eager to try just about everything. He likes to be with people and does most things with a great deal of enthusiasm. Because he is so eager to try new things, his parents and caregivers are especially careful to monitor him to make sure he’s safe.

Frederico’s mirror image is “Coretta the Cautious.” She’s shy and slow to warm in new situations. With time and support, Coretta is likely to feel more comfortable and will respond more positively.

Then there is “Hilary the Hard Worker” who is industrious. She is usually pleasant and can sit quietly for long periods of time playing with her toys or working on a puzzle. Hilary, however, may be distressed if she does not get to finish her project in just the right way.

Hilary’s mirror image is “Gregory the Grumpy” whose temperament is high maintenance. He reacts strongly to changes and can be very moody. He also has difficulty sitting still and completing tasks. A good thing about Gregory is that he’s honest and let’s you know what he’s thinking.

Can You Change a Child’s Temperament?
People are born with a particular temperament. Because temperament is biological, it is highly resistant to change. Instead of trying to change a child’s temperament, a better idea is to learn strategies that work with your child’s particular temperament. But most importantly, it’s important that a child is not punished or reprimanded because of his or her temperament.

Adapt to Your Child’s Temperament
What works with one child based on their temperament just won’t work with another. For example, it may take a very gentle reminder to get a child like Hilary to obey. Because Frederico may be very busy enjoying himself, his caregivers might need to first get his attention, then give him a simple directive to obey like, “You need to sit down right now, Frederico.”

Children who are high in activity really need to have appropriate opportunities to use their high energy level. Disciplining them by taking away their time to run and jump may actually be counter-productive and make their behavior worse.

If you have a child who is cautious, it is best to ease a child into a new experience. For example, you might tell the child that he is going to a birthday party but that there will be some friends he knows. Or if your child is low in task persistence, a good strategy is to break up what you want the child to do into little parts, patiently monitor the child, and acknowledge all his or her good efforts.

Don’t Label Temperaments
Adults should avoid labeling a kid’s temperament as “good” or “bad.” Each temperament has strengths and each temperament includes qualities that give adults concern. No temperament is ideal in every situation. Every temperament is going to encounter situations that are challenging. That’s when responsive adults really help a child.
Child Care Provider Comments
Sylvia Rath
Sylvia Rath
Child care provider for 17 years
We deal with each child’s temperament on an individual basis. We do have conflict resolution and problem solving. Teachers work as facilitators with the children to help them work through the process. It would be really easy if there was one method that works with every child. Some children need to cool off after they’ve had a conflict before you can problem solve with them. It is an interactive process.
Michelle Kimbrough
Michelle Kimbrough
Mother of two
My children’s temperaments do differ from one another, so my approach to disciplining them is a little different. My daughter is more sensitive so I have to go to her and actually get down and talk with her. Make sure she is okay. I explain to her what she did wrong. I have to actually go to her room and talk with her and tell her what is wrong. When she is mad at me, she won’t even look at me. Then, she will come hug and kiss me and say “Sorry, Momma.”

Kenneth is different because he will keep crying and make sure I see it. He stays up underneath me and cries or begs. If he doesn’t want to eat something, he will stand there and make me go over it over and over again. He will just sit there and sob. I have to be more repetitive with him. He will come ask again after I say “no.” Or, he will get something himself that he was told “no” to.
Joann Ordoñez
Joann Ordoñez
Grandmother of seven
My grandchildren’s temperaments are different. Because of their different temperaments, I do have to discipline them differently. Vanessa is strong willed yet at the same time she is very sensitive. When I try to discipline her, she can get hurt very easily. I discipline her by sitting down and talking to her. I make her understand why I have to discipline her. Matthew is also very sensitive. I have to caution myself on how I discipline him. I do the same method as with Vanessa. My tone is more mellow because I know how sensitive he can be. With Ayden, I am a little stronger because of his strong personality. I discipline him with a harder voice. I tell him “No” and point my finger. I say, “You don’t do that.”

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Discipline and Temperament
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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