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Temperament 101

The year Ryan turned 2, I started graduate school in clinical counseling. Keenly sensitive to the feel of his clothing, and resistant to each transition, Ryan often had loud, prolonged tantrums as we got ready to leave the house each morning. By the time I picked up the friend who rode with me, I was close to tears myself. My friend suggested I look into the research of Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, pioneering husband-and-wife psychiatrists who'd initiated a study of children's temperament when their psychoanalytical backgrounds had failed to account for the differences and difficulties they'd seen in children's behaviors.

Chess and Thomas were psychiatry professors at New York Medical Center. Launching what would be a 30-year longitudinal study of children and parents in 1956, they were among the first to describe the role that inborn temperament plays in accounting for children's behavioral styles. In their groundbreaking work, they brushed away decades of environmentalism, which had rigidly held that babies were born "blank slates," their growth and development dependent entirely on the quality of their parenting. In their view, infants weren't born empty vessels, but came into the world exhibiting remarkably different hereditary differences in how they responded to the environment. Furthermore, argued Chess and Thomas, what often struck parents and professionals alike as unusual, difficult, or even abnormal behavior might instead be perfectly natural and benign variations in innate temperamental makeup.

I think it was Behavioral Individuality in Early Childhood by Chess and Thomas that I read first, sitting in the college library. What a revelation! I'd never heard of temperament, yet here was an impressive body of scientific research that dealt with normal children of normal parents who acted just like Ryan! And thank goodness for my friend. In the entire course of my graduate training, temperament was never mentioned.

In their studies, which included disabled children and children from different socioeconomic and cultural populations, Chess and Thomas identified nine distinct dimensions reflecting differences in temperament that influence how children respond to the world around them. I'd been mystified and dismayed, for example, by Ryan's chronic irritability, his difficulty getting to sleep, especially when he was overtired or overstimulated, and his strong negative reaction to anything new. It was deeply reassuring to read in Chess and Thomas that Ryan fit the temperamental profile of a child born with low adaptability: he had a hard time adapting to and tolerating even ordinary daily transitions, such as waking and sleeping or being dressed and undressed, which accounted for our difficult mornings. According to Chess and Thomas, he was also a highly sensitive baby, demonstrated by his reactivity to the feel of clothing and how easily he became overstimulated and overwrought.

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