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Three Common Elements Of Temperament Characteristics

The first factor common to all temperament characteristics is that these individual differences are present at birth. Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to discuss personality development. The purpose of his theory, however, was to explain the common human experience. Freud argued that all children were born with biological drives (e.g., hunger, thirst) that need to be satisfied in order to ensure personal survival. Three mental structures (the id, the ego, and the superego) emerge during childhood and struggle with each other to create the individual's personality. According to Freud, personality differences are not present at birth. Instead, these differences emerge during childhood as each child resolves internal conflict in different ways and in different family contexts. By adolescence, children have developed unique coping styles that are stable into adulthood. Temperament researchers, on the other hand, argue that differences in reactions to the world are present at birth. In addition, few believe that children are constantly struggling to resolve internal conflict during childhood. Children are born with unique behavioral styles that influence their development from the womb until death.

The second element common to all temperament characteristics is that these differences are inherent in the person. Temperament is a biologically based reaction to the world. This does not mean that all temperamental differences are genetically inherited. This is the foundation of Arnold Buss and Robert Plomin's EAS theory of temperament, with EAS standing for the traits found to be heritable during infancy (emotionality, activity, and sociability). Other researchers, however, also include prenatal influences on children's behavior. The idea that traits are biologically based does not mean that these characteristics are resistant to environmental influences. All temperament theorists argue that social experiences can and will change a child's temperament. Inherent simply means that these behavioral styles are not due to parenting. Infants' unique reactions to the world have biological roots. For instance, many children born to mothers addicted to drugs have very difficult temperaments; these children cry often, are hard to console, and do not like to be held. Their behavior is thought to be due to the influence of the drugs on the developing fetus in the womb. Other children may inherit from their parents a tendency to be emotional or shy.

As early as 1699, the philosopher John Locke maintained that children are born with different behavioral tendencies. He also believed that the environment was the strongest force in development. To Locke, social experiences, not temperamental differences, shaped behavior across development. This was the predominant view of children's development until the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess published their classic books about the role of temperament in parent-child relationships and children's social and emotional development. Thomas and Chess argued that children's behavioral problems do not always stem from bad parenting. Instead, some children come into this world with temperament styles that make disciplining them a challenge. Even competent, caring parents may have difficult children and these parents need help learning how to manage their sons and daughters.

Other child psychologists at this time also asserted that children are born equipped with behavioral biases and abilities that affect later development. The cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget described infants as active participants in their own experiences who are motivated to learn how to adapt in their environments. By the end of the 1980s, the child was no longer seen as a piece of clay to be molded into an obedient citizen, but as a force to be guided into a competent adult. It was in this intellectual context that the notion took hold that children are born with unique temperament characteristics.

There is some evidence that early temperament traits predict behavior in adolescence and adulthood. It is easier to predict the future behavior of people with extreme temperament styles than of those who fall in the middle. (Nathan Benn/Corbis)

The third component of all definitions of temperament is that behavioral styles are relatively stable across development. Temperament characteristics can and will change in response to parenting and other social forces. The idea is that the early roots of adult personality can be seen from the beginning. Several studies have included groups of individuals who were followed from birth to adulthood. The findings from these studies regarding stability are mixed. Children's temperament traits do appear to be quite stable through infancy and into childhood. Jerome Kagan and his colleagues studied two extreme groups of children from infancy to adolescence. Members of the first group, behaviorally inhibited children, were very shy and fearful in unfamiliar situations. Members of the second group, behaviorally uninhibited children, were very gregarious and assertive in novel settings. The researchers found that the inhibited children were at greater risk for later social and emotional problems compared to the uninhibited children.

Others have found that children who withdraw from situations or who throw tantrums have more marital and work-related problems in adulthood compared to other children. Temperament measures are good tools to help uncover early adjustment problems. Predicting adult personality from infant temperament, however, is not as easily achieved for those in the middle range compared to those at the extreme ends. Some children change in response to their experiences with their parents, teachers, and peers. In addition, children begin to exert conscious control over their behavioral tendencies during childhood. Part of healthy development is learning how to adapt to the demands of different contexts. Some active children learn restraint and some emotional children learn peacefulness.

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Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 8Temperament - Three Common Elements Of Temperament Characteristics, Measuring Temperament, Biological Factors, Environmental Factors