Pediatric Annals

Temperament and the Parent-Child Interaction

Stella Chess, MD; Alexander Thomas, MD


Temperament plays a significant role in the development of the growing child. Not only do the parents' temperaments influence the child, however, but the child's inclinations and responses can have a profound effect on each of his parents.


Temperament plays a significant role in the development of the growing child. Not only do the parents' temperaments influence the child, however, but the child's inclinations and responses can have a profound effect on each of his parents.

Central to the consideration of the parentchild relationship is that each influences the other from the beginning in a constantly evolving process of interaction. The infant is not a homunculus ("little adult"), as previous centuries had it. In this constitutionalist view, the final adult psychologic structure is present at birth, and development consists of the maturation and unfolding of these fixed inherent characteristics. Nor is the infant a tabula rasa, as recent environmentalist theories might indicate - a clean slate on which the family and society can inscribe the ultimate behavioral patterns and outcomes.

The environmentalist view dominated dynamic psychology and psychiatry from the beginning of this century until very recently. This approach has been highly productive in the progressive accumulation of research and clinical data indicating that the child's environment - his conditions of life, relationships with his parents and other family members, and the extrafamilial sociocultural setting - has a profound influence in shaping healthy and pathologic physical and psychologic development.1 However, some 25 years ago, we ourselves became increasingly impressed with the contribution made to behavioral development by the child's own characteristics, especially in his pattern of temperamental organization.2 Our own clinical experience, as well as that of others, suggested that the exclusive concern with environmental influences could not explain the variability in developmental course exhibited by individual children. Nor could it explain the marked differences in the responses of children to similar patterns of parental attitudes, values, and child-care practices.3 It did appear that the child's temperamental characteristics might play a significant and active role in development and in interaction with parental attributes and other environmental influences.

The term temperament designates the behavioral style of the individual, irrespective of the content, level of ability, or motivation of the particular activity. Two children may each dress or feed themselves or throw a ball with the same level of dexterity and have the same motives in so doing. Yet they may differ with respect to the rate at which they move, the intensity with which they act, the mood they express, or the persistence in coping with any difficulties that arise. To test the hypothesis that temperamental individuality is an important factor in the child-environmental interactional process, we initiated the New York Longitudinal Study (NYLS) in 1956. In this study the behavioral development of 136 subjects has been followed from early infancy onward. At that time, in the mid-1950s, little systematic knowledge of the role of temperament existed and very few investigators were interested in this issue. A number of observations had been reported over the preceding decades,3 but they were too fragmentary and narrow in focus to provide a systematic and comprehensive understanding of temperament and its significance for psychologic development and functioning.

Through the NYLS we have been able to identify specific categories of temperamental individuality, to formulate quantitative and qualitative methods of rating temperament, to trace the vicissitudes of temperament over time, and to determine its influence on both normal and deviant psychologic development. The findings of this first study have been expanded by the data from several other longitudinal studies we have also conducted and from the work of other investigators. The methods and findings have been reported in a number of publications and are detailed in our latest volume.4

We have found that the objective details of the behavior of all children in the routines of daily living and in new situations can be rated for nine categories of temperament - activity level, rhythmicity of biologic functions, ease of adaptability, approach/withdrawal reactions to new stimuli and new situations, sensory threshold, mood (preponderance of positive versus negative mood), intensity of mood, distractibility, and persistence and attention span. Three functionally significant constellations of temperament have also been identified. The "easy child" is characterized by biologic regularity, a preponderance of approach reactions to the new, positive mood of mild to moderate intensity, and easy adaptability. The "difficult child," by contrast, has biologic irregularity, a preponderance of withdrawal reactions to the new, many negative mood expressions of marked intensity, and slow adaptability. The "slow-to-warm-up child," like the "difficult child," has withdrawal responses, negative mood, and slow adaptability but, by contrast, has mild reactions and may or may not have irregularity of biologic functions. As might be expected, individual children vary widely in the degree and sharpness with which they exhibit one or another of these constellations. Also, combinations of other categories may be functionally important in influencing the developmental process in specific children.

A short parent questionnaire form for rating the nine categories of temperament in the infancy period has been developed by William Carey, a pediatrician, and is already in wide use both in this country and abroad. Carey is currently working on a revision of this questionnaire. A short questionnaire for the three-to-seven-year age period has just been completed by us. Both Carey's and our questionnaires, as well as reference to several questionnaires elaborated by other investigators, are included in our recent volume.4 (Carey has also developed a short questionnaire for the three-to-seven-year age period.) These short rating forms make the tasks of the clinician in assessing temperament in children practical and efficient.

We have found that temperament plays a highly significant role in the child-environment interactional process at sequential levels of development. The child's temperament influences the behavior and attitudes of peers, older children, parents, and teachers. Conversely, the effect of these persons' behavior and attitudes is markedly influenced by the child's temperament. Furthermore, temperament, motivations, cognitive attributes, and special abilities or handicaps enter into a reciprocal interactional process in helping to shape the child's development at each age period. These findings have now been abundantly confirmed by a number of other investigators both in this country and abroad.4


A child's specific temperamental traits can affect the parent's attitudes and behavior in many ways. In the infancy period, parental responses are most frequently and strongly influenced by whether the infant has the temperamental constellation of the "easy" or "difficult" child. This determines whether management routines proceed smoothly or with turmoil and whether the landmarks of early socialization (regular sleep and feeding schedules, toilet training, adaptation to family living patterns, etc.) are achieved quickly with initial efforts or after prolonged trial and error. If the mother believes the middle-class conventional wisdom that the course of the infant's development is determined primarily by her maternal attitudes, motivations, and needs, an "easy child" will reassure her that she is an adequate, healthy, and loving mother. She will be delighted with her child, who has given her this opportunity to prove herself, and may even feel superior to mothers who are struggling painfully with their "difficult children." If the father has the same standards, he will reinforce his wife's judgments and perhaps even gain an unrealistic estimate of her psychologic assets. Unfortunately, this outcome is not always an unmixed blessing to the mother. As in any case in which self-esteem is built on the evidence of one specific achievement, the mother can become vulnerable and easily threatened by any failure of her "easy child" to adapt quickly and smoothly to every new situation and demand.

The parents of an "easy child" may be pleased and even grateful that they have to spend relatively little effort, time, and attention on the child's care. This may have a positive effect on the parent-child relationship, stimulating the expansion and growth of parental love and affection and, in turn, enhancing the child's sense of being wanted and loved. In other instances, however, the needs of the "easy child" may be ignored because he adapts so quickly and fusses so little. The parents may concentrate their efforts and attention on another child with special needs or problems, such as physical handicaps or cognitive lags. In such cases, the "easy child" may very well react with feelings of rejection, with all the deleterious psychologic consequences that such a reaction may bring. It may also happen (even though infrequently) that a parent, with his or her special value system, may be displeased if the youngster has the "easy child" characteristics of quick adaptability and mild mood expressiveness. Thus, one father was highly critical of his daughter's easy adaptability because in his eyes she was a "pushover," someone who would not fight for what she wanted.

By contrast, the parents can hardly ignore a "difficult child." The special child-care demands made by such an infant can in general create several types of parental responses, depending on their personality structures and the sociocultural pressures of their group. The parents may feel threatened and anxious because they think that the turmoil and difficulties of care expose their inadequacy as parents. They may believe that they are unconsciously rejecting their child, unloving, or just plain inept as caretakers. Or the parents may blame the infant and resent the extra burdens and demands he puts on them. Finally, the parents may be intimidated by the infant's frequent loud screaming and "resistance" to training procedures.

In all these cases, whether the parents are threatened, resentful, or intimidated, they can hardly provide the patient, gradual, and repeated exposure to new situations and demands that such a child requires to make a positive adaptation. They are more likely to pressure, appease, punish, or vacillate - all the time communicating a host of negative feelings to the infant, such as hostility, impatience, or bewilderment. This only leads to intensification of the infant's negative mood expressions and difficulties in adaptation. A vicious cycle is created, leading to behaviordisorder development. It is then all too easy for the mental health professional or pediatrician to incorrectly identify the parents' unhealthy attitudes and behavior as the sole cause of the disorder.

Occasionally, a parent may respond positively to the temperament of the "difficult child." One parent, the father of a child with one of the most extreme "difficult child" patterns in the NYLS, took pride and pleasure in his infant's vigor and "lustiness." He was also aware that after the initial storm and turmoil that accompanied the exposure to any new situation, his son gradually adapted positively and energetically. Because of his positive attitude and patience, he was able to be very supportive of his wife, who felt anxious and guilty over the child's behavior pattern. As a consequence, this youngster did not develop a behavior disorder.

In fact, most parents of "difficult children" with behavior disorders responded positively once they understood that their child's temperament existed independently of their own attitudes and functioning and that a specific management approach was required. They did require reassurance that their patient efforts would finally be rewarded by a change in adaptation by the child, who would then function on a level congenial to their own value system. Because of this, parent guidance in the cases of "difficult children" with behavior problems was as successful as in the "easy child" clinical sample.

Other temperamental traits can, of course, initiate inappropriate parental reactions to their infants. For example, Carey5 has found that sleep disturbance in infants with night waking is significantly correlated with low sensory threshold. He points out that if the mother is automatically held responsible for this sleep problem, she may develop "anxiety, anger or feelings of helplessness" - which may be, in reality, "the result rather than the cause of the baby's waking."

In the preschool years, the temperamental constellation of the "easy" or difficult" child can continue to affect the parents' responses as new demands for adaptation and selfmastery arise. In addition, these new demands and expectations - combined with the child's ever-expanding range of activities and capabilities - enhance the significance of other temperamental attributes in the developmental process. Here, too, as in the earlier period, temperament can affect the parents' attitudes and behavior towards the child.

For example, the highly active young child, once he is walking and running, can present special problems of management, especially in an urban environment. He is more apt to get burned and bruised, to break things, to dart out into the street in front of an oncoming car, and to interfere unintentionally with the activities and comforts of others than is the child with a moderate or low activity level. Some parents can enjoy the liveliness of a highly active child. Others can become resentful, overwhelmed, or anxious at the more vigilant attention such a youngster demands. They may also interpret lack of compliance with demands for unrealistic restraint of motor activity as deliberate disobedience, especially if their other children respond easily to similar requests. If this leads the parents to scold or punish the highly active child for each infraction of the rules, the youngster may decide that there is no point in trying to please his parents and that he might just as well ignore or resist their wishes altogether. He may then, in fact, become disobedient.

By contrast, the low-activity child may be a convenient member of the household. He does not require special vigilance, and his slow movements interfere very little with the activities of other family members. Parental impatience and displeasure may develop, however, when the child's slowness in finishing meals or getting dressed interferes with the family's schedule. The parents may also compare him unfavorably with their more active children and may even interpret the slow motor activity as evidence of inferior intellectual ability.

A highly distractible child may facilitate management during infancy. Such a child's resistance to being held still while being dressed or diapered can easily be countered by offering him a toy or other distractions. The crawling infant's attention can be quickly diverted from a potentially dangerous activity, such as poking at an electrical socket. As the child grows older, however, this quality of easy distractibility becomes less convenient, especially if combined with low persistence and attention span. These characteristics interfere with the goal of quick and complete task completion - a demand that is made increasingly on the growing child, especially in middle-class families. If the parents understand that the distractibility is not motivated by a desire to avoid the completion of a task and that the child is not deficient in "a sense of responsibility," they can avoid a derogatory or punitive attitude. They can then accept with good humor and patience the frequent "forgetting" to finish a task and appreciate the high level of general alertness and awareness of the nuances of other people's behavior and feelings such distractible children frequently show. Other parents, to the contrary, interpret the typical behavior of the distractible child as reflecting conscious disobethence, laziness, or lack of will-power and responsibility. These derogatory judgments lead to excessive pressure on the child, as well as hypercritical and punitive attitudes, and foster a pathologic child-parent interaction that may produce increasing malfunction and symptoms in the child.

Parental response to high persistence in the preschool child can be influenced greatly by the selectiveness of his interests and activities and by coexisting tempermental traits. If the youngster's persistence is focused on areas that the parents value highly, this will gain parental approval and more than counterbalance the inconvenience and annoyance that result when the child's attention cannot be easily turned. The child who resists coming for meals, getting dressed, or going to bed because he is absorbed in putting a puzzle together, trying to learn to read, or practicing an athletic skill will meet parental tolerance and even encouragement if the parents approve of his activities and goals. If, however, the child focuses on activities that may be unsafe or on interests that appear unimportant or unproductive, his persistence may be interpreted as nagging, stubbornness, or inconsiderateness.

The persistent preschool youngster is likely to suffer many frustration reactions as he struggles intently to master difficult new activities and tasks and as attempts are made to call him away to meals or bedtime. If this mood expression is mild, these frustrations will typically be expressed in a way that is likely to be acceptable to the family. If, however, his mood expression is intense, there may be storms, loud protests, and even tantrums that may tax or overwhelm the parents. Patience and tolerance with the persistent child are also easier if he has a low activity level and sits quietly or moves slowly as he is absorbed in his pursuits. If, however, he has a high level that annoys or interferes with other people, this trait, in combination with his persistence, may create serious dissonances with parental expectations and demands.

Finally, the typical behavior of the "slow-to-warm-up child" usually creates few if any issues in infancy but may begin to do so in the preschool period. As an infant, he may react negatively to the bath, to new foods, or to strangers, as does the "difficult child." But inasmuch as the "slow-to-warm-up child" expresses his withdrawal reactions mildly and quietly, it is usually easy for the parents to tolerate them and wait patiently until the infant finally makes a positive adaptation. But this tolerance and patience are harder for the parents to maintain when the withdrawal reactions begin to occur in an area that has high priority in their value system. Thus, the middle-class parents in the NYLS were uniformly unconcerned if time was required to persuade the infant to accept various foods. But many of them became deeply concerned when the same child, two or three years later, showed similar negative reactions to a new nursery school or preschool play group. For these parents, the development of a varied and regular diet ranked low on the scale of their hierarchies of goals and standards for the child. By contrast, the ability to make quick and positive interpersonal relations ranked very high.

For the parents who understood the initial social withdrawal reactions of their "slowto-warm-up child" as part of his normal behavioral style of functioning, a willingness to wait and give the youngster time to make a final positive adaptation was exhibited. For the parents who saw the initial negative reaction as "timidity or anxiety," such patience was much more difficult to achieve. Some of them pressured the child to adapt quickly and actively to the new group, which usually resulted in an intensification of the child's withdrawal response, increased parental pressure, and the initiation of a snowballing pathogenic parent-child interaction. Other parents were similarly threatened by the slow-to-warm-up social behavior but responded with overprotectiveness, trying to shield the youngsters from these demanding new situations. As a result, the child was denied the opportunity for frequent exposure to new situations that he needed in order to achieve a positive adaptation, and he tended to develop only a constricted range of activities and interests.

In the school years, each child's developmental course is increasingly affected by the school setting and peer groups. Parental influences, though not as dominant as in the infancy and preschool periods, continue to be important. Patterns of parent-child interaction established in these earlier years are sometimes reinforced by the child's school functioning. This occurs especially when the child's temperament made the adaptation to formal learning demands slow or stressful. In many other families, the increasingly complex and varied aspects of the older child's psychologic functioning make for significant shifts in parental attitudes and behavior. In these instances, the child's temperament is only one of a number of interacting factors influencing the course of the parent-child relationship.

As a final point, it should be emphasized that the nature of the parents' response to the child's temperament is determined not so much by the degree of congruence with their own temperament or other personality characteristics as by consonance with their goals, standards, and values. We have seen all types of combination. Parents may find it difficult to understand and relate to a child with markedly different temperament. On the other hand, they may appreciate and sympathize with such differences. Parents may be delighted with a child with similar temperament to their own. Or they may feel, correctly or incorrectly, that their own temperament created stresses and problems for them and may encourage the child to be different and even try to insist on it.


Parents can influence their child's development in many ways, which are indicated in other sections of this compendium. That discussion will not be repeated here, except to emphasize the significance of parental values, standards, and goals; psychodynamic patterns; attitudes and child-care practices; and psychologic health or disorder.

Beyond this, the discussion above has indicated that parental attributes may affect the child's developmental course, depending on the child's temperament and other characteristics and the degree of consonance or dissonance between parental demands and expectations and the child's temperament and capacities. This is clearly seen in the early years in the child's ability to respond positively to the specific child-care practices of the parents. An approach to the child as a tabula rasa results in the assumption that

each child will react in the same way to any specific approach by the parent, whether in feeding, toilet training, discipline or any other area of functioning. A child care practice which has a favorable effect on some children is assumed to be desirable for all; a practice which has unfavorable effects on some children is considered undesirable for all. Where a particular child care practice appears to have varying effects on different children, explanations for these deviations tend to be given in terms of the presence of counteracting influences in the mother, father or sibling relationship.2

This statement, formulated by us almost 20 years ago, unfortunately still remains all too true. Such an approach has several negative consequences. The child who cannot respond to a currently favored categorical rule becomes at risk for the development of behavior disorder. The mother whose child does not respond favorably and smoothly to the prescribed rule is held culpable because of postulated ineptitude, disinterest, or hostility to the child.8 The inevitable finding that all children do not respond positively to the prescribed child-care regimen initiates a swing of the pendulum and a search for a new, universally applicable set of rules. It indeed appears difficult for many mental health professionals (though easier for parents, baby nurses, and pediatricians) to accept the fact that babies respond differently and that no single set of prescriptions can be desirable for all infants.

It is clear that the exhortations "Treat your child as an individual" and "Respect the uniqueness of your child" become clichés and slogans unless given content and substance. And this content demands that the child-care expert and adviser be fully aware of the phenomenon of temperamental individuality, the different types of temperamental characteristics, and the manner in which such temperamental individuality shapes the infant's responses to specific child-care practices.


1. Henderson. L J The Ftness of the Environment New Yo*: The Macmillan Company. 1973.

2. Chess. S., Thomas. A., and Bren. H Characteristics of the individual child's behavioral responses to the environment. Am J. Orthopsychiatry 24 (1959). 791-802.

3. Thomas. A.. Chess. S.. and Birch H. G. Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York: New York University Press. 1968, pp. 3-5

4. Thomas, A., and Chess, S. Temperament and Development. New York Brunner/Mazel, 1977.

5. Carey, W. B Night awakening and temperament in infancy. J. Pediatr 84 (1974), 756-758.

6. Chess, S. Mal de mere Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 34 (1964), 613614.


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