On Listening to Temperament


1/2/2019

An Introduction

     I’m a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Northern California.  I have worked in the field of temperament in a number of capacities, including in the ground-breaking anticipatory guidance program through Kaiser Hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area and with Preventive Ounce in Oakland, CA offering temperament related services including counseling and education to families with infants and young children. I have given workshops and trainings on temperament for agencies including Head Start. Elaine Aron, psychologist, researcher and bestselling author of The Highly Sensitive Person refers parents with highly sensitive children to me. Parents with highly sensitive children and other temperament extremes and challenges from around the world contact me and I do phone and Skype temperament consults with some of those parents.

     This blog has been in progress for a long time. In my head. I let the anticipation of the technical aspects of getting  it up and running, no, the dread of that process, keep me in limbo for a long time. When I finally took concrete steps the technical parts did in fact overwhelm me again and again.  Thanks to my daughter’s help I’m finally up and running.

     I wish this blog had a little more visual style but for now at least I’m going to keep things simple and focus on the writing.  I hope you will too. My goal is to share information which will be both personally and professionally useful.

     Temperament, the body of information about our individual  styles of behavior, has had a deep and abiding hold on me for nearly forty years.  Drawing from a temperament perspective has had a profound effect on both my personal and professional lives as a neutral and yet powerful personal resource leading to individualized insights and solutions. 

     I started listening to temperament when I was a new mother with a young child who I found more challenging to understand and to comfort and care for than all the children I had cared for as a prolific babysitter for much of the prior decade. I was 25, my son just two. Driving to graduate school I often spoke about our challenging morning to the friend who rode with me.  She suggested I look up the temperament research of husband and wife psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas.  Following up on that recommendation would turn out to be life changing for me.

     I learned that temperament is the how, or innate style of behavior, rather than the why of behavior. And for the first time I read an accurate description of my son, acknowledging his “difficult” (a descriptor Chess and Thomas used for a constellation of particular temperament extremes) temperament as a less common but nevertheless normal variation.  Although we hear most about the behavior of children with moderate temperaments in the middle of the continuum, a much wider range of normal exists.  There are a significant minority of children who have one or more temperament extremes. They might for instance be highly sensitive and low in adaptability like my son. Other extremes include high activity levels and high intensity. All are normal.  Ultimately, knowledge about temperament normalized my experience and provided straightforward, tremendously valuable information towards understanding individual differences in my son, my daughter, myself and my family. Over the years I have helped scores of my clients to experience similar benefits by learning about temperament.

     Still, more than thirty five years since I first learned about this valuable information and despite ongoing validating research, temperament remains an underutilized resource. No therapist or instructor in my life ever spoke about temperament. I still see and talk to people all the time who know  little or nothing about temperament. And here’s the thing. Of all the tools I use daily both personally and professionally,  temperament is the resource I use most and find the most valuable. I reach for it again and again.  

     There is so much I like about listening to temperament. I like to start from the most benign perspective and with the most benign interventions. Temperament works well towards both of  these goals.  Less common or unusual behavior is not sufficient reason for a diagnostic label or to be categorized as somehow abnormal. Temperament describes normal individual differences. It’s a beautiful thing.  I like ways of thinking about things that are straight forward and easy to use. Behold, temperament. Something that is both individual and applicable to everyone.  You probably get it by now. I’m smitten.

     When I first learned about temperament I read about it as it applied to children. As a parent and as a clinician working with parents and children I found the temperament perspective tremendously helpful.  I was still however floundering with some personal issues. I was easily overwhelmed and over stimulated. I felt pressured easily, and could get lost in thinking about issues or projects. I cried easily and had a hard time with changes. I was anxious sometimes, moody sometimes but overall I didn’t feel either depressed or anxious. Parents I worked with sometimes volunteered that temperament information was useful to them personally and increasingly I began to experience the same.  With a heightened awareness I began to see and hear  temperament   more and more. I was reticent for awhile. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t over reaching by using an approach just because it was meaningful to me.  Elaine Aron’s bestselling book, The Highly Sensitive Person  made her research about high sensitivity in adults readily available. And it spoke to me. As I began using temperament more and more to explain individual differences and find best solutions I found it easier, quicker and truer than many other approaches I’d used across time.

     I plan to write about each temperament characteristic here, starting with sensitivity. I’ll also take some related detours. I’ll write about self care, anxiety management and parenting and relationship issues, for instance. If you are not familiar with temperament you may be feeling a little mystified  and you might also wonder what’s the big deal about temperament.  I have found knowing about temperament to be a wellspring in my life. It could be in yours too. I hope you’ll read on to find out more.

Temperament 101

     How do we make sense of ourselves or our children when there are so many possible directions to go in for help with our personal life challenges? We might consult any number of  books, friends, family and professionals. We should just decide to do better. Take medication. Exercise. Take supplements. Get therapy. Discipline our children. Be flexible. Set boundaries. Be open. It can feel good to search and to seek support but what works for someone else doesn’t always work for us, or feel right, even when the approach comes highly recommended, so the search also can be confusing, even daunting.

      The way to  understanding our best solutions is right at hand. We have an individual compass for understanding, and relief within in us when we pay attention to our temperaments. Within each of us lies the seeds of our own best selves. The way to know how to gain emotional comfort or healing or to deal with parenting challenges is to know the right way for you, and for your child. We all have this infinite resource. Tapping into our temperament, our exquisitely personal style, provides the perfect source of information for best fit solutions for ourselves. So much better than applying a theory or method.

     Temperament is a daily vital part of our lives. You don’t have to be in therapy or have a child in therapy to benefit from an understanding of temperament. Each of us has our own individual temperament and it’s an essential component to understanding our particular variation of normal,  and the distinctive types of solutions uniquely suited to work for us. Temperament can be a liability when dismissed or ignored, derailing us when we invest in the idea that we ought to be certain way instead investing in who we are. When temperament is addressed and honored it becomes a way to access immediate personal strengths, a save that with a little honing becomes a personal wellspring.

     Husband and wife psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas began a longitudinal and ultimately groundbreaking study of infants in 1956. At that time parents, mothers in particular, were generally seen as responsible for their children’s behavior.  Chess and Thomas noted in their private practice however that challenging behaviors in children were not always due to poor parenting practices and that  easy going children were also not the predictable result of skilled parenting. Chess and Thomas followed the original group of children well into adulthood. They found nine variable temperament characteristics, all normal, which could be observed beginning in infancy. The study has been replicated many times with many populations.

     I will not be reviewing the global wealth of ongoing research on temperament.  There is a lot available  supporting both the existence and value of temperament.  There are also a variety of temperament questionnaires available both for professional and personal use.

     Different researchers use slightly different temperament terms and categories. I’m partial for the most part to the terminology Chess and Thomas used. They hold a special place in my personal temperament story but their categories have also worked well for me.  I am however also drawing from other research and my own personal and professional experience  when I write here about temperament.

     We all have the temperament characteristics of sensitivity, activity, intensity, persistence, adaptability, approach/withdrawal, regularity, mood, and distractability. Any place on the continuum is normal in each category. There are all kinds of ways of being low or high in each  characteristic.  A person low in sensitivity  might miss social cues and not be very attuned to other people’s feelings or their own, or miss visual details, or both but many variations are possible. The combination of traits influence each other as do other environmental  and life factors and variables such as family, culture, health and stress and trauma.

     My next blog will be about the temperament characteristic  of sensitivity.  I’ll also write more about why temperament is so important and how incorporating an understanding of temperament can lead to great saves.  Stay tuned. I look forward to sharing more with you.

Categories Introduction

10 thoughts on “On Listening to Temperament

  1. I’m honored to be the first to comment. With years and years of experience, Alice is a genius when it comes to handling children’s behavior problems of all sorts. Unlike most parenting books, when she suggests something to do, she always takes into account temperament. Always. No “one-size-fits-all” approach. (Notice medicine is heading this way for the same reason–it works better.) That’s why she is so successful. I wish she would write a book filled with all her experience. Please ask her to. But this is a good beginning.

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  2. I’ll be checking back for more installments. Thank you for writing!

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  3. Congratulations on your new blog, Alice. I will follow it closely and know it will be a hit!

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  4. Will you be willing to set up this blog with a “follow” or “newsletter” option to click on and enter my email? I would really like to get all of your upcoming posts in my email box…Remembering to come back to this page will not work for me because I switch back and forth between a work and home computer. Thanks!

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    1. Lesley, there is a follow button. I think it shows up differently depending on what device you’re on. Look on the bottom of the page. I have followers so I know it’s working! Let me know if you have trouble finding it.

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  5. I am looking forward to learn more about it. Thank you for your generous sharing.

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  6. Alice, thanks for dedicating yourself to this challenging but beautiful work on temperament. I’m an HSP. Looking forward to more of your thoughts…

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  7. I could never understand why temperament has been so spectacularly unregistered, ignored or dismissed.

    Or, rather, I DO understand. Because this ‘black and white’ one-size-fits-all world almost callously seems to toss into the bin this innate ingredient of a human being’s makeup.

    Why? Because it’s ‘inconvenient’. Far cheaper and easier to just pretend it doesn’t exist. Also sensitivity is similarly binned. So things like temperament go unnoticed, or is just seen as an excuse, an indulgence, something to be knocked out of someone.

    I don’t know if this world will ever really change on this.

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  8. I am a psychotherapist, mom, HSP (among other things :)) based in Massachusetts. I have read about and been interested in temperament for a long time but it seems to be coming up more and more lately in my personal and professional life. I am so excited for your blog and to learn more about how you use this with clients. As you said, this is an often missed piece of the developmental picture and it’s so good to read about it from people like you. Thank you!!

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    1. So looking forward to your next posts. This has been so informative; filled with “aha” moments!

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