Ever wondered why some people are moodier than others or where these emotional habits came from? Have you ever wondered if these recurring moods are genetic or learned? Do you have a difficult infant that is making you worry if they will be difficult forever?
The bad news is: temperament exists, and is genetically formed even before a child is born.
The good news is: temperament CAN be adjusted and charted out with the proper intervention!
Every person on the planet has a unique temperament– an individual’s emotional disposition- that dictates how one responds to different situations. We are so used to identifying people by just how moody they are- thinking in advance how a person will react based on our knowledge of them.
Although people don’t often think about temperament as a tangible thing, it is actually something with real root causes and serious long-term effects on personality!
Temperament is a real thing, and it can be psychologically charted and manipulated from childhood if understood correctly.
To better understand the roots of your temperament, and even manipulate temperament from childhood, here are some psychologically proven facts about temperament and its long-term effects!
How Do You Identify Temperament?
There are two basic ends of the spectrum when we talk about temperament.
In the simplest of terms, on one end of the spectrum a person can either be very withdrawn, introverted, and highly reactive.
On the other end of the spectrum, a person can be easy-going, adaptive, extroverted, and calm in reacting to situations with positive self-regulation of emotions.
In adults, temperament can be more nuanced and specific to the individual- they have of course had many more years to develop their own unique personalities! Infants and toddlers, however, are simpler to understand.
The roots of temperament can easily be found in infant’s crying habits and reaction to the environment.
If an infant is highly reactive, he or she will cry very easily and very often. The infant will be overly attached to mommy, and will be harder to soothe once upset.
If an infant is easy going, he or she will smile often, will be attached to mommy but will easily be soothed if is upset- and has better coping abilities for stressful situations.
It is pretty clear how these behaviors chart out in the long run. A highly reactive infant risks growing up to be a person who has difficulty managing relationships and emotions, lacking self-regulatory skills. An easy-going infant will grow up knowing how to manage their emotions and have positive relationships.
But is that the end of the line? How can temperament be changed, for the better or worse?
Before we can address this burning question, we have to settle the matter of where temperament actually comes from!
Your Temperament Is In Your Genes!
As established, an infant is born with the temperament that is passed on to them from their parents, in the same way as other traits are passed down from parent to child!
Genetically speaking, we receive alleles for traits from our parents for not only physical attributes, but personality traits such as temperament as well.
An infant can have two different alleles from the parents- they inherit different genetic material. In this instance, the child will be heterozygous for that given trait. The dominant trait will always take control over the recessive one, even if two opposite traits are present.
If a child is homozygous for any trait (2 exact copies of alleles for a single trait from both parents), the child will hold that particular trait.
Two alleles for high reactivity, the infant will be highly reactive.
Two alleles for easy going, the infant will be easy going.
In addition to the genetic effects of parental temperament, if either or even both parents experience any serious trauma before conceiving the child, this can have strong impacts on the infant’s temperament.
If a child’s temperament is not dealt with or responded to in the proper manner, it can exacerbate into something worse over the years, creating a moody, emotional, and at times dysfunctional adult!
Now that we understand where temperament comes from, we can answer the question of how temperament can be changed!
Epigenetics: Parenting Matters!
In recent years, research scientists studying infant psychology and development have discovered an interesting fact about genetics.
Although temperament seems to be a trait that is fixed from the genes passed from parent to child, there is significant evidence to show that a lot of genetic material and how it comes to life in a person’s identity can actually be adjusted through experience!
This adjustment of genetic material is called epigenetics. In epigenetics, the expression of a gene is altered, and a different trait can be seen in the person because of environmental factors.
This discovery led to something very critical to many aspects of child development- temperament in particular.
In an experiment with infant Rhesus monkeys, where foster mothers on one spectrum-end raised infant monkeys of the opposite temperament, groundbreaking discovery about the epigenetic nature of temperament was found.
Researchers found that even when born with highly reactive and withdrawn temperament, an infant reared by a mother who distracts the infant from distress and provides a relaxed environment to develop coping mechanisms, the infant’s temperament switches over to the opposite end of the spectrum and becomes easy going!
The way a parent deals with an infant’s temperament and how the reactions of parent and infant interact is called goodness of fit.
If a highly reactive infant is raised by a highly reactive set of parents, the infant’s reactivity will only be heightened.
If that same infant is raised by easy-going parents who help provide useful coping mechanisms, the infant will learn to surpass reactivity and become easy going as well.
On the other hand, if highly reactive parents raise an easy-going infant, the infant will slowly pick up on those reactive habits and lose their easy-going nature to a certain extent.
In short, no matter what temperament a child is born with, the expression of the infant’s inherited temperament can be adjusted by parenting- for better or for worse.
- Here are some parenting tips for raising a highly reactive infant to become more easy-going:
- Distract the infant from the source of distress- do not focus on the distress itself!
- Teach coping mechanisms and self-regulation
- Label the emotions and the cause of the emotions CALMLY
- Respond positively and with attention and emotion, showing the infant you are PRESENT and RELIABLE- letting an infant CRY IT OUT is NOT an answer!
Temperament is just one of those things that is a part of every person’s life. Some people are highly reactive and do not know how to cope with serious emotions. Other people are very easy going and can deal with any amount of stressors without worry.
Although stress is an important survival mechanism, balancing reactivity and easy going-ness is ideal. It is important to remember that no matter the temperament of an infant, the parenting style of the parent MATTERS in the long run!
What have you learned about where your own temperament came from? How you can adjust your parenting habits to impact your own child’s temperament for the better?