Temperament: What you can do

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Read about managing difficult temperament characteristics in a baby or child. Helpful suggestions, such as anticipating fussy periods, are provided.

Key points

  • If you have a "difficult" baby, spend lots of time with them, be consistent in routine, learn to anticipate fussy periods, offer physical comfort, remain calm, avoid labelling your baby as "bad."
  • Nine criteria that make up your child’s temperament: activity level, rhythmicity, distractibility, approach/withdrawal, adaptability, attention span/persistence, intensity of reaction, sensitivity, and quality of mood.

Difficult temperaments are the most likely to continue as your baby gets older. However, there are things you can do to help change your baby's temperament.

What to do for your baby

There are three major types of temperament: easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm-up. Easy babies are just that: they adapt easily to new situations, react mildly to things, and have a positive and happy mood most of the time. Difficult babies have intense reactions and difficulty adapting to new situations; they cry often and have an overall negative mood. Slow-to-warm-up babies have a low activity level and they take a long time to adapt to new situations. They are sometimes thought of as shy.

Studies show that, of all the temperament types, the difficult temperament is most likely to continue as the baby gets older. It is also the one that causes the most stress in parents. If you have a difficult baby, they may simply have colic and could grow out of their fussiness. However, their seemingly unbecoming behaviour could very well continue, which no doubt will cause you stress and anxiety. If this is the case, you may need to learn to adjust your reactions to them as they get older, in order to be a more effective parent. Here are a few tips for interacting with your difficult baby:

  • Spend lots of time with them, one-on-one, reading a book or singing to them.
  • Try to be as consistent as possible with regard to naptimes, activities, feeding, and other daily activities
  • Learn to anticipate your baby’s fussy periods. If you know they will get upset in certain situations, try to avoid those activities.
  • Offer physical comfort when they are upset, by giving them a big hug.
  • If your baby has very intense reactions and emotions, try to remain calm and avoid rocking them too vigorously.
  • Avoid labelling your baby as "bad."

What to do as your child gets older

There are nine criteria that make up your child’s temperament: activity level, rhythmicity, distractibility, approach/withdrawal, adaptability, attention span/persistence, intensity of reaction, sensitivity, and quality of mood. Here is a description of these nine temperament criteria and how they relate to the different types of temperament.

Temperament characteristicType of temperament
Activity level
How active your child is
VariesLow to moderateVaries
How regular your child’s routine is
Very regularVariesIrregular
How easily distracted your child can be when doing something
How easily your child responds to new experiences
Approaches readilyWithdraws at firstWithdraws
How easily your child adapts to new situations
Very adaptableSlowly adaptableSlowly adaptable
Attention span/persistence
How persistent your child is when faced with challenges
High or lowHigh or lowHigh or low
Intensity of reaction
How intense your child’s responses and emotions are
Low or mildMildIntense
How sensitive your child is to textures, noises, or flavours
High or lowHigh or lowHigh or low
Quality of mood
Whether your child is pleasant and happy most of the time (positive mood) or unpleasant most of the time (negative mood)
PositiveSlightly negativeNegative

Adapted from Thomas A, Chess S, Birch AG. The Origin of Personality. Scientific American 1970;223:102-9.

Here are some tips on how to help your child, as mentioned in the book Pathways to Competence by child development specialist Dr. Sarah Landy.

Activity level

If your child is very active, provide them with opportunities to let off some steam, such as running, jumping, and climbing. Alternate these activities with fine motor activities like drawing or cutting. If you need them to be quiet, make sure it is only for a short period of time. help them practice moving slowly like a snail, and play games like Simon Says, which have slow and fast movements in sequence. Encourage them to use words instead of always using actions to express themselves. Provide consistent limits and structure.

If your child has a low activity level, give them enough time to finish tasks. Do not criticize them, and do not allow other more active children to take over. Focus on their accomplishments. Encourage them to do exercises to improve their coordination.


If your child is very regular in their daily routine, try to accommodate their need for regularity. Maintain their routine as much as possible on holidays, vacations, and outings. Prepare them well ahead of time for any transitions, and talk to them about any changes in routine that are coming up.

If your child is not regular at all in their routine, accept how they feel but impose social rules. For example, accept that they may not be hungry, but ask that they sit at the table and eat one thing. Accept that they might not be tired, but tell them to stay in their bed. Impose a regular waking time, mealtimes, and bedtime. Give them time to wake up in the morning and help them to establish a routine. Show your child how to talk themselves through the routine.


If your child does not respond well to new situations, support them through new experiences and set a time limit. Prepare for new activities by encouraging your child to use their imagination and pretend they are getting ready for an adventure. Be there for them when things do not work out. Encourage them when they show initiative, and follow their lead when appropriate. Help them to talk about their feelings. Try inviting a playmate over, perhaps someone who is younger. Teach your child appropriate ways to approach new children, such as saying "Can I play?" or "Can I help?"

If your child plunges into new situations readily, watch them carefully to keep them safe. If they are pushy with other children, teach them appropriate ways to approach them. If your child tends to be overenthusiastic at first about a new situation, and then negative, try to prepare them ahead of time and give them realistic expectations.


If your child takes a long time adapt to new situations, provide them with many opportunities to experience new things in a brief and gradual way. Provide predictable routines. Do not use a sink-or-swim approach, as this can make your child more anxious. Talk about upcoming events, let them ask questions, and provide reassurance. Warn them about transitions. Give them opportunities to interact with other children, and teach them appropriate ways to approach new children.

If your child is quick to adapt, enjoy it and just make sure the situation is safe. Let them know you appreciate how well they are managing. Check that they are continuing to enjoy the activity. If their enjoyment is fading, remind them that sometimes this happens.


If your child is very sensitive to textures, flavours, or noises, avoid those certain clothes, foods or other items that trigger intense reactions. Give them words to explain how they feel. When situations get too difficult, for example, when too many people are around, remove them. Try to calm your child before they spin out of control. Teach your child how to use deep breathing techniques in difficult situations. When your child shows positive reactions such as empathy and concern, encourage them.

If your child is not sensitive, they may come across as passive and uninterested. Alert them to cues they may be missing, and make sure they understand what is being requested. Draw them out by being very persistent and enthusiastic, and working hard to get their attention. Find out what does stimulate them, perhaps listening to loud music or playing on the swings, and provide opportunities for these activities.

Intensity of reaction

If your child has very intense reactions, try to keep your cool, and respond in a calm way. Listen to their concerns and discuss them. Ask them to talk calmly about what is upsetting them. Use time-outs to let them, and you, cool down. Step away from the situation if necessary.

Try to intervene before your child has a meltdown. Look for those signs that their intensity is building. Persist in your limit-setting and do not give in.

If your child’s reactions are very mild, listen to their opinions and take their complaints of pain and upset seriously. Encourage them to express their opinion and talk about their feelings. Make sure to soothe them when they need it, even if their reactions are low key.


If your child is easily distracted, provide them with a small enclosed place to play, and very few toys at a time. Make sure they understand any directions, and remove any distracting items if possible. Provide them with firm limits and structure. Insist that they spend some concentrated time on the activities, but give them breaks periodically. When they finish a task, praise them.

If your child is not easily distracted, provide them with warnings about when to stop an activity. Try not to ask your child to do something when they are in the middle of concentrating on something else. If they are constantly trying to be alone in order to get something done, make sure to include them in social activities as well.

Attention span/persistence

If your child has a problem sticking with things and paying attention, use touch, pictures, and verbal instructions to help them finish a task. Offer guidance and assistance, and stay close by in case the task gets too difficult for them. Have them work for brief periods at a time in an uncluttered, consistent place. Let them take breaks while doing a task, but make sure they return to the task after the break. Make sure they complete the task, and praise them when they do.

If your child is very persistent with a high attention span, praise their persistence when appropriate. Choose your battles carefully, and try to negotiate whenever possible. At the same time, make sure you are clear about rules, and stick to them. Teach your child to estimate the time it will take to complete a task, and let them know that sometimes they need to stop before they finish a task. Give them a warning if you need them to interrupt a task.

Quality of mood

If your child is negative and unpleasant much of the time, try to help them see the positive. Show them what they can do. Teach them to look at both sides of a situation, but do not downplay their distress. If they become very upset, try giving them a short time-out as a way to calm down. Teach them appropriate ways to express anger and frustration. Give them lots of opportunities to experience fun activities that they enjoy.

If your child is happy and positive most of the time, enjoy it! Let them know you appreciate their good nature. However, teach them to be a bit more cautious about people, and give them some safeguards.

Last updated: September 22nd 2009