Thursday, April 9, 2009

Difficult Temperament ≠ A Child Destined for Problems: Good Parenting is Key

I’ve been talking a lot about temperament lately, so when I found this interesting article about the interaction between parenting and temperament I decided I had to do one more post on the subject.

So here’s the lowdown on the study. Researchers from Indiana University wanted to look at how babies with different temperaments (e.g., difficult, easy) ended up doing socially and academically by the time they reached first grade and what, if any, role parenting played in this process. Previously, some people had thought that a baby with a difficult temperament would have more difficulty adjusting to school later in life. These researchers studied 1,364 children from birth to first grade, along with their parents. The children were given a temperamental classification (e.g., difficult, easy) at 6 months of age. Mothers’ parenting style was observed several times over the course of the study with areas such as warmth and age-appropriate control being examined. Lastly, children’s adjustment to first grade was considered in areas such as academic competence and social skills.

temperament baby
The findings were very enlightening: children who were labeled as having a difficult temperament as infants had as good as or better grades and social skills in first grade as children not labeled as difficult IF their mothers provided good parenting. In other words, parenting matters! This is probably not a huge surprise to many people, but it’s interesting to see the research to back it up. Not surprisingly, children with difficult temperaments who received less-than-optimal parenting fared worse in first grade than other children.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study is the fact that researchers believe that children with difficult temperaments are more sensitive to both positive and negative parenting. That is, they were more likely (than children with non-difficult temperaments) to adjust poorly to first grade if they experienced negative parenting, but they were also more likely to perform well in first grade if they received excellent parenting. Although this is just one study, it makes a lot of sense. Children with difficult temperaments are thought to be extra sensitive to the external environment and find it harder to regulate themselves. While this can be challenging for parenting at times, it may also mean that these children are also more sensitive to parents’ interventions and attempts to help them learn to regulate their emotions.

I think this study sends an optimistic message to parents. What you do really matters! As if you didn’t know that already. If your child has a difficult temperament, approaching him/her with sensitivity and warmth can make a huge difference.


Source: Stright, A. D., Gallagher, K. C., & Kelley, K. (2008). Infant temperament moderates relations between maternal parenting in early childhood and children’s adjustment in first grade. Child Development, 79, 186-200.

The press release for this article is here.

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