While the concerns of parents of temperamentally extreme children have often been dismissed or minimized, I've seen many families hurt when teachers, doctors, and therapists have overreacted to a child's unusual behavior. When parents and therapists don't know the child and are unfamiliar with his or her particular behavior, it can lead to assuming pathology in the child when no pathology exists. When toileting problems, biting, major tantrums, school refusal, and other serious behavioral concerns in children come to my attention, I don't automatically assume there's a serious disorder in the child or family. It isn't, of course, appropriate to assume that all unusual behavior in children is normal. Still, as a parent and therapist, I've seen many unusual and potentially alarming behaviors that make sense when I take into account who this particular child is--what his or her temperament is--and within what environment the behavior is occurring. Even a seemingly big problem doesn't necessarily scream for a big response, but it does call for an effective response. Responding to a child in a way that results in a good fit and is more likely to be effective requires understanding of his or her temperament.
Each of the nine temperament dimensions defined by Chess and Thomas helped me understand my son and figure out strategies for dealing with his temperament. What follows is a summary of these dimensions.
Activity measures the amount of physical energy a child puts into behavior and daily activities. A very active infant moves around a lot, even when sleeping. Highly energetic children often prefer more active kinds of play--large-motor activities and outdoor exercise--over quiet, indoor pursuits. Even when they engage in presumably quieter occupations, they often do them in an active way. They fall off their chairs while playing a board game, twirl about or fidget when reading, get up repeatedly and walk around the room while doing homework. Some of them go nonstop, willingly falling into a deep sleep only when they're exhausted and their bodies give out. Others rarely appear tired and often resist sleep, but become cranky, overwrought, and hard to settle if kept up too long. Active children need plenty of physical outlets and may need help when it's time to calm down. For example, roughhousing before bedtime isn't a good idea, although they love it. Baths--widely supposed to calm all children--do calm some down, but rev others up. Parents need to notice what works for their child--quiet music, no TV, a back rub, and time alone with books or quiet toys before sleep are all means of settling active children.
Intensity refers to the level of energy a child puts into self-expression; it's a measure of a child's volume and drama. Intense children express all their emotions with vigor and gusto. They may talk and sing, laugh, and fly into rages with equal abandon. They tend to speak in extremes: they had the "best" day of their lives or the "worst"; you're "the most wonderful mother in the world" or the meanest and rottenest. These children are delightfully enthusiastic when they're in a good mood; a negative reaction, however, often in response to seemingly minor daily events, may induce a righteous tantrum, startling mouthiness, or threats to run away, kill someone, or kill themselves.