Focus on the Family

Your Child's Personality

by Laurie Winslow Sargent

How well do you know your own child? Are you excited about the chance to get to know your son or daughter as a unique human being; someone you will only begin to appreciate in the few years he or she lives under your roof?

Your child no doubt possesses a combination of traits that surprise and intrigue you. Her strongest traits are often those you find yourself trying to tone down — especially if those traits are opposite from the ones you were born with. For example, if your child is superenergetic and you are more calm and quiet, you may say "Settle down, please!" a dozen times a day.

On the flip side, you may try to cultivate those traits that come less naturally to your child. If you are extroverted and have a shy child, you may urge him impatiently to let go of your pant leg and join that throng of other children. And while he may remain naturally shy, he eventually is likely to learn that joining other kids — even when he feels uncomfortable — can lead to making new friends.

For this reason, a child may express opposite traits, depending on time and place, expectations and experience. He may be bold and adventurous at times, yet exercise caution and good judgment when needed. But what characterizes your child most strongly? Would you say he is mostly adventurous or mostly cautious?

An adventurous toddler will jump pell-mell into a pool of busy children, while a more cautious one tends to hang back — testing the water before tentatively dipping in.  An older cautious child may jump on a trampoline, yet be relieved that it has a net to keep him from falling out. His adventurous and impulsive friend, however, may deliberately try to bounce out, up and over the nine-foot barrier.  If successful, he may bump his head on the picnic table, laugh, then do it all over again!

Adventurous kids cause parents hair to go gray early. But more timid children can worry parents as well, as they often need an extra push in life to make the most of their other attributes.

What influences your child's personality?

How a child uses his inborn traits — whether those will be strengthened or subdued — will be influenced throughout his childhood by three or four factors:

  1. Relationships. Your relationship with your child will have a greater impact on him than that of any other person, so do all you can to nurture him. Also seek to help him develop mutually uplifting relations with siblings, grandparents, friends and others.
  2. The way he is educated. Be involved in your child's education to ensure that your child's classroom is suited to his makeup. I'm not suggesting that you ask his teacher to cater to your child but to be sure she recognizes his personality traits, builds up his strengths, and encourages him to overcome weaknesses. In some cases, you may even decide that homeschooling is the best option for you and your child.
  3. The environment in which he lives. Make sure your household provides your child a rich environment — and I'm not talking about material trappings. Two children with similar personalities — one of whom isn't appreciated or encouraged and another who is supported while he explores his interests and passions — will respond differently to life.
  4. Trauma in early childhood.  This last influence may be important to consider if you are raising a child who has been abused or neglected. You may have difficulty separating his innate character traits from those that have evolved out of fear of punishment.  One adoptive father noticed his child's compulsion to clean or organize but recognized that his preference for keeping his room neat could either indicate the child's innate love for order or stem from fear. It is possible the child thought that he had been beaten for not keeping his room clean or mistakenly thought neatness would help him be more accepted. Since they were not sure what drove his neatness, this child's adoptive parents were careful not to focus too much praise on that behavior.

In a healthy home, a child's strongest traits generally will follow him from infancy through adulthood. Some kids truly do love to line of up their things in organized ways, from their shoes to their toys! And those strong, innate traits are likely to impact both of you on a daily basis.

Effects of your child's personality traits

A child's strongest traits will affect:

In other words, becoming familiar with your child's personality will go a long way toward helping you understand why your child acts the way she does. At the same time, the more intimately you get to know a child, the more you will find that he cannot be stereotyped and summed up by one personality type. Yet children often reveal strengths and weaknesses in clusters that seem familiar. And familiarity can breed greater understanding.


Determining Your Child's Personality Type

Take this quiz to help you recognize which of the four commonly recognized personality types best described your child.

by Laurie Winslow Sargent

Though many books on personality typing are available today, Hippocrates laid the foundation for subsequent discussions of personality when he identified the personality types nearly twenty-five hundred years ago. The four types and some of their commonly recognized characteristics are:

Whether or not these terms are familiar to you, you've probably intuited a lot about your child's personality type just by noticing his everyday reactions and motivations. The following quiz will help you recognize what you already know about your child — and better understand why he behaves the way he does.

1. You can truthfully say, "I'd be a millionaire if only I could bottle and sell my child's ..."

  1. optimism.
  2. persistence.
  3. kindness.
  4. confidence.

2. Your son keeps you up until 2 a.m. the night before his school's science fair because 

  1. Though he's been talking for days about his great plans, he casually mentions over dinner that he hasn't actually started his project yet.
  2. He refuses to go to bed until you help him make sure that each planet in his model of the solar system is exact to scale.
  3. He spent so much time helping his best friend finish his project that he's starting his own late.
  4. He's willing to sacrifice sleep in order to be sure his complicated and innovative project is better than anyone else's — and will win the blue ribbon.

3. When you take your daughter to her first overnight camp, you are impressed because your child

  1. Charms her counselor and makes five new friends before she's unpacked her bags.
  2. Completes all five levels of the Red Cross swimming safety course in just one week.
  3. Is able to restore peace to her cabin after one camper unfairly accuses another of swiping a CD.
  4. Organizes and emcees the final night's camper talent show.

4. Your daughter comes home from school crying because

  1. A boy laughed after school by mimicking her enthusiastic cheering during the previous day's football game.
  2. Despite carefully following all her teacher's detailed directions, she received a C on her art project.
  3. She watched another child being mercilessly teased on the bus ride home and was unable to stop the bullies from picking on that classmate.
  4. She lost her class's election for a seat on the student council.

5. When your child's teacher tells you how much she enjoys having your son in class, it is most likely because

  1. He's creative, cheerful, and comes up with great new ideas.
  2. He doesn't quit but keeps working on a project until it's done right.
  3. He listens calmly and intently in class and does everything he can to please his teachers.
  4. He catches on to material quickly and enjoys teaching other kids what he knows.

6. At age four, your child likes playing in the big sandbox at the park because

  1. It is the best place to find a new friend to play with or someone else to talk to.
  2. He loves to use his 48-piece sand-castle kit to build intricate buildings.
  3. He can see you sitting on the nearby bench at all times and knows you'll step in to help if an older child tries to steal his toys.
  4. He has a captive audience and can tell everyone else what to build.

7. Your child's excuse for not cleaning her room on Saturday morning is that

  1. She wants to tell you all about your neighbor's new puppy first.
  2. There's nothing to clean. You walk in her room and find out she's right: Everything is already clean and neatly organized.
  3. She's unsure where to start.
  4. She shouldn't have to clean her room until you start cleaning the rest of the house.

8. When you ask your child whether he'd like to return to your family's favorite vacation spot or take a sightseeing tour to New York City this summer, he says

  1. New York City! Maybe he'll actually run into celebrities when your family walks down Broadway. In fact, maybe one of them will even invite him to a casting call!
  2. He'd prefer returning to the same resort, where he knows the schedule and what to expect each day of the week.
  3. Your family's traditional spot; it holds warm memories for him.
  4. New York City. It will be a new adventure, and he can already tell you the four sites your family must not miss.

9. Other people are always remarking on your child's

  1. energy and enthusiasm.
  2. attention to detail.
  3. thoughtfulness.
  4. leadership ability.

If you circled mostly 1's, your child is likely a sanguine and primarily interested in being with other people and having fun.

If you circled mostly 2's, your child is probably a melancholy who wants to get things just right.

If you circled mostly 3's, your child is most likely a phlegmatic who cares deeply about others' feelings.

If you circled mostly 4's, your child is probably a choleric who values adventure and being the leader.

Note: Many children have several characteristics from two of these types.


Understanding Your Child's Personality Traits

Some of your child's behavior and activities are connected with personality traits while others have developed to cope with expectations. Ask yourself these questions to discern which come most naturally to your child.

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Even after completing the quiz in the previous article, you may be unsure about your child's personality type. What if he possesses some traits that appear to be direct opposites? It's possible that your child is engaged in activities common to all personality types, which makes it a little difficult to discern what comes most naturally. How can you figure out whether behavior and activities are connected with inborn traits or whether your child has developed them to cope with others' expectations? Ask yourself (or your child) the following questions:

1. What activities energize my child? drain her? Think back to how your child spent last Saturday. Let's say that on this single day your daughter picked up her room, met with some fellow 4-H members to plan the group's next fund-raiser, cheerfully entertained your friend's toddler while you and your friend visited, and then welcomed four of her closest friends to your house for a slumber party she'd spent weeks planning. Does that mean she's a melancholy, choleric, phlegmatic and sanguine all rolled into one?

No. Perhaps she picked up her toys only because you had made it clear that she must — and she really wants her allowance. She may be the one planning the fund-raiser because she really likes and wants to please the group's adviser. It's possible that she readily agreed to watch your friend's child because she thinks it will be so cool when she's old enough to baby-sit — and she had nothing fun planned that afternoon anyway.

That evening, however, you noticed her eyes dancing with excitement as she waited for her friends to arrive. She chattered nonstop as she spread out the supplies for the craft project she'd planned. She hummed as she got out the snacks. When the doorbell rang, she ran to the door to welcome her first guest. After a busy day, she felt energized, excited, contented, more sanguine ... more herself.

2. What is the motivation behind engagement in those activities? Priorities are often good indicators of inborn traits. Two kids who are interested in the same activity — say a sports camp — may sign up for very different reasons.

The first child excitedly registers but will stay in the camp only if her friend signs up too. She thinks, After all, what fun can it possibly be without friends? 

The second child eagerly signs up for the same camp. But when asked by his mother if he'd like his best friend to sign up with him, he responds, "Um, no, not this time." Why not? Because he is determined to learn the sport itself. He's concerned that his playful, exuberant friend might distract him. He thinks, After all, what fun can it be to go to a sports camp and not learn the sport?  He'd rather arrange another time to play with his friend.

As you can see, the first child's priority is nurturing relationships. A person who tends to be social, animated, bouncy, enthusiastic, funny, and highly extroverted is likely to be energized by people and truly dislike being alone. Activity choices revolve around who to get together with and when.

The second child's priority is goal mastery. Some children love to plan and achieve goals. That is what energizes and excites them. It doesn't mean the second child is not sociable: his priorities are simply different. 

3. Is it more valuable, perhaps, to define what my child is not, rather than what he is? Will that at least eliminate activities that drain and unmotivate? Sometimes it may be more clear what a person is not than what he is. Let's say you inwardly cringe each time you notice your ten-year-old son's messy, bulging backpack. It's jammed with dog-eared textbooks, old homework assignments, outdated notices from school — even leftovers from last week's lunches. You constantly urge him to clean it out — and on occasion even do so yourself — only to feel your irritation rise a few days later when you stumble over the stuffed backpack that he's left lying in your hallway again. Clearly neatness and organization are not his strengths.

Yet this same son may excel at playing the trumpet. He carefully guards his prized instrument and, in addition to practicing for band class, enjoys improvising new melodies. Because of the way your son motivates and entertains his fellow band members, the band teacher considers him a prize student and natural leader.

Let's say that same band teacher is the student council adviser and encourages your son to run for a spot in student government. While it might not make much sense for your son to serve as secretary or treasurer — who knows what would happen to the notes or money entrusted to him? — his leadership skills might make him an excellent president or class representative. Discerning your child's weaknesses from his strengths can assist you as you help him choose activities. That doesn't mean you won't encourage him to edge out of his comfort zone once in a while, but you'll know better when to let things be.

4. Even with a good idea of what energizes and motivates my child, could I jump to conclusions that might not be accurate? Sometimes our own desires for our children cause us to overfocus on strengths that we think will prove most useful to a child. What you see as the main course in your child (his major strengths or gifts) may indeed only be side dishes (minor strengths).

One classic example, replayed endlessly in movies, is that of the formerly athletic dad who hopes to live out his own failed dreams through his child. He's optimistic about and perhaps exaggerates potential in his child's couple of home runs, only to realize later with chagrin that his son prefers the arts to sports.

An obvious way to avoid this pitfall is to listen to your child as he expresses what does and does not interest him. That doesn't mean you never push a child to try something he's not immediately interested in — a reluctant soccer player may indeed end up loving it (though he won't necessarily want to devote excess time to it.)

Designed with differences

It's a good thing we are designed with such differences! The human population needs variety. Romans 12:4-5 describes the need for different gifts within members of the church:

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

If you have ever found yourself embarrassed or let-down by your child's personality, remember that God designed your child with a particular temperament for a reason! You, as the parent, have the incredible privilege of seeing how those traits are used to strengthen your family, as well as your child's school, friendships, and, eventually, your child's life work.

Now that you've had an opportunity to consider your child's leanings, next up is an examination of how traits can cause friction between children and their parents. As we focus on when "differences" means "difficulties," I hope you will continue to remember all that is admirable and worthy of praise in your child.


When Personality Differences Lead to Difficulties

Understanding how personality differences may cause you to be irritated with your child can go a long way in helping you overcome frustration and effectively correct your child.

by Laurie Winslow Sargent

Have you ever felt a sudden flash of annoyance when your child's behavior doesn't match your expectations? Perhaps she looks down and says nothing when a friend of yours greets her. He may wander off as you look at paint samples in the hardware store. Maybe she giggles during the entire theatre performance. At such moments, you may not enjoy being with your child very much. Yet simply understanding the source of your irritation can go a long way in helping you overcome frustration and correct your child effectively. The first step is realizing that personality clashes can occur when:

When opposites clash

You may not always be patient with your child when she displays inherent personality traits, especially if they are directly opposite from your own. If you are quiet by nature, a nonstop chatterer may annoy you, no matter how much you love your child. Conversely, if you are sociable, you may lose patience with a shy, quiet thinker who has trouble expressing feelings and thoughts. A child with a strong inborn sense of fairness coupled with a strong will may want to debate every issue. That may drive you nuts — especially when half the time he is right.

Consider how you and your child differ in terms of persistence and attention span; activity level; sensory threshold; mood and intensity of responses; approach or withdrawal; adaptability; and regularity. It's easy to see how problems can arise if you and your child differ in these areas. Perhaps you can relate to one of the following examples:

Persistence and attention span: You want to hurry to the grocery store. Your child, slowly and deliberately insists on tying his own shoes, wait, just let him make that loop ... very slowly ... then, oops ... start over. Or you want your child to stick with and finish the project she insisted you do together, and now she's wandering, daydreaming, already clamoring to do something else.

Activity level: You are exhausted from work and want to relax and read Winnie the Pooh to your child. He wants to roller skate, hike, bike, go, go, go! If you're the one with a high activity level, you may spend an entire morning fruitlessly searching for the perfect outfit for your daughter to wear in an upcoming family portrait. When you tell her you're willing to drive to another mall to continue the search, she may burst into tears and say she just wants to go home.

Sensory threshold: You barely notice sounds, smells, or the textures of fabrics. She incessantly overreacts to neck tags and other such dreadful stuff. You think she's hysterical.  She thinks you're insensitive. Or maybe your child drives you crazy by making loud truck noises as he pushes his monster truck across the kitchen floor while you're at the table trying to balance your family's budget.

Mood and intensity of responses: You are emotionally expressive. He's hard to read. Getting him to tell you what's going on in his mind is like pulling teeth. Or perhaps your child becomes hysterical over a scratch that doesn't even bleed, and you want to say, "Just get over it!"

Approach or withdrawal: You are outgoing and the life of every party. You've got to drop your child off at preschool and run some errands, but your child is shyly, stubbornly clinging to you. Or you may be a little shy and your child charges up to strangers, forcing you to interact with them when you may not feel entirely comfortable doing so.

Adaptability: You've set aside a day to swim and play at a new water park on your family vacation. When you pull off the interstate and into the newly paved parking lot, however, you discover that the park hasn't officially opened yet. Though you're all disappointed, you can't understand why your son is still sulking late that afternoon while the rest of the family is having a blast building an ornate sand castle at the nearby public beach. If your child is the more adaptable one, however, he may be the one to suggest going to the beach while you're angrily composing a letter in your head to the magazine that said the water park had opened the previous week.

Regularity: A friend calls and invites you to the mall for lunch. Frustrated, you tell her no. Though you'd love to go, you know that if your toddler daughter doesn't eat or sleep at exactly the same time every day she becomes an emotional mess. Perhaps it is you who likes predictability. Just when you get used to working during his naps he changes his schedule again. Then he quits napping altogether and you wring your hands. When will you ever get your work done?

Can you see how personality differences can lead to big conflicts with your child? As I'll point out over and over again, just being aware of how your personality traits are different — as well as alike — can help you maintain your cool.


What Contributes to Personality Clashes

Not all personality clashes result from opposite personalities between parent and child. Here are other factors to consider.

by Laurie Winslow Sargent

What about when you and your child share traits? While it is typically easier to understand a child who is like you, similarities in personality can create its own set of problems. If you are aware of shared traits, you may feel mixed emotions when your child displays weaknesses you struggled with as a child, such as stubbornness or impulsivity. Your heart may be in the right place — you want to prevent your child from making similar mistakes — but beware of overexaggerating a particular weakness and unfairly labeling her. Remember, she is not you, and you are not her. Telling her "You are just as stubborn as I was as a kid, and boy did that get me in trouble!" may not be helpful.

On the other hand, you may unconsciously share a trait with your child and then wonder why you have so much conflict. Remember that two strong-willed people can butt heads like mountain goats. Two talkers may argue endlessly. Two flighty people may distract each other.

Classroom issues

Sometimes your child's personality causes conflict with people outside your family. In a group setting, such as a classroom, all members are often expected to cooperate in the same way. A high energy, distractible child can complicate life for his teacher, who may be trying to engage an entire group of children in a math lesson.

A kid who is different from the rest of the crowd may create a frustrating learning environment for himself, his teacher, and fellow students. However, if he is placed in an environment that better matches his learning style, his frustration level is likely to decrease or even end.

Behavioral issues in context

You may have different expectations for your child when you're away from home. When a little whirlwind visits relatives, she risks breaking Grandma's favorite vase. If she jumps across the floor of her aunt's upstairs apartment, she may risk annoying the downstairs neighbors when their ceiling starts shaking.

Sometimes issues are only issues in context. My child Elisa's personal motto, "Why walk when you can jump?" creates no problem in our own home and goes largely unnoticed except when she wants to jump down stairs five at a time instead of two. But whenever we stay overnight in a hotel room, my husband and I are suddenly sensitive to every little leap and stomp. After all, it's our responsibility to be sure other people aren't disturbed. I turn into a nag.

At home, a child's constant motion and chatter can distract Mom or Dad from getting tasks done. Even if Mom eventually gives up trying to balance the checkbook so she can take her youngster to the park to burn energy, she's likely to feel she's shirking her duties. But in reality helping her daughter find an acceptable outlet for her energy is Mom's responsibility. Understanding the source of frustration can go a long way in helping Mom do that.

When your child is stressed

When a child is stressed, his strongest character traits tend to be magnified. When a child picks up tension in the household, revealed by his parents' increased nagging, a rushed schedule, or expressions of anger or tears, he is likely to react in a way that gets their attention.

A sensitive child will become more hysterical (or more withdrawn) than usual. An active child may become even busier, perhaps even acting out-of-control; a strong-willed child will likely become more defiant. Again, understanding that your child is simply reacting to the environment rather than setting out to annoy you may help you better cope with and address unwanted behavior.

When you feel extra responsible

High-energy and overreactive kids are often difficult for adults to handle simply because their caretakers feel the burden of assuming extra responsibility to keep these kids from harming themselves or others. For instance, hyperactivity and clumsiness in a child can make for a dangerous mix, turning observers into nervous wrecks. 

Tantrums are especially common among kids who are assertive, sensitive, and who struggle with transitions and verbal expression of feeling. Of course a hungry or tired toddler or preschooler may blow at any time as well!

But the reality is that many parents experience struggles like this on a day-to-day basis. They feel guilty that they don't always like their children — although they do love them. Such children may eventually mellow and find better ways to deal with energy or feelings of sensitivity or frustration. In other words, they may lose the need for other people to control and take responsibility for them as they do this for themselves. Again, just taking the long view may help parents cope in the meantime.


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Tips for Dealing With Personality Clashes

Here are seven ideas for keeping the right perspective, even when your child is driving you nuts.

by Laurie Winslow Sargent

Want some additional tips for dealing with personality clashes between you and your children?

1. Focus on the positives. How can you keep the proper perspective when your child is driving you nuts? Take a moment to consider the advice of Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is  excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things."

What in your child is excellent, honorable, and admirable? How often do you fix your thoughts on what is lovely and worthy of praise? That same child who always seems to defy you may someday be able to look a classmate in the eye and say "No!" when he's offered a joint. Your extremely shy daughter may be the only one with enough sensitivity to reach the lonely heart of a grandparent who is grieving over the loss of a spouse.

It can be refreshing to stop, look at your kids, and listen to them long enough and deeply enough to consider all that admirable in them. Delight in those attributes you see, in any measure!

2. Consider positive sides of "negative" traits, and share those with other grown-ups who spend time with your child.  Sometimes finding the positive means looking at an annoying trait in a new way. You may be frustrated when your child wanders away five minutes after starting to paint (and after you spent twice that long locating and dragging out all the supplies), but don't forget the bright side: Your easily distracted child is also likely to be flexible. That means that if you read about a fun family event in the paper, only to discover it starts in fifteen minutes, you and your child might actually make it there on time. Also, a flexible child may gracefully let you stop in the middle of a table game that you find dull.

An extremely stubborn child may frustrate you by insisting on dressing himself in a striped shirt and plaid shorts. Don't forget, however, that he will also — before you know it — efficiently pack a school backpack without a whit of supervision.

3. Be honest with your child about differences. Your child is also likely to react more positively if he understands your differences and how they sometimes lead to conflict. Don't just point out your differences, however; be sure to tell your child what you appreciate about him. For example, say "I can appreciate that you are [energetic, sensitive ... ]. That's a good thing and will help you [accomplish your goals, make others feel cared for ...]. I am different from you in that I like to [relax when I get home, be flexible ...] and that can be a good thing too."

4. Don't pigeon-hole your child. Never assume you have your child all figured out. Personality typing is a form of labeling. Behaviors are clustered together and kids with those personalities are assumed to act exactly alike. That isn't so — kids are also affected by their experiences and their own special wiring.

5. Learn to compromise, and teach your child to do the same. For example, if your child hates sudden transitions, build into your mental schedule a little extra time for five-minute warnings to wrap up activities. If your activity level is higher than your child's, be willing to spend less time doing what you want to avoid burning out your child.

By the same token, talk to your child about making "trades": "Stick with me without complaining until I can get these errands done, then we'll stop at a fast-food joint with an indoor playground where you can run like crazy."

6. Accept that parenting requires some self-sacrifice, but take breaks when you need them . If your child requires more energy to parent than others, you're probably well-versed in the sacrifices of parenthood! Don't forget, however, that you need time to recharge. That may mean asking your spouse or a friend to help so you can spend some time away from your child.

Keep tabs on your own emotional meter. If you have PMS, overdue bills, and you didn't sleep much last night because a child woke up twice in pain from an ear infection, it won't take much to make you impatient or annoyed or weepy. Forgive yourself if you overreact and recognize when you need time alone.

If the conflicts between you and your child ever increase your anger to the point that you may be abusive (including verbally), it's critical that you get help and find some new strategies.

7. Get help from other family members who share traits with your child. It may seem like a no-brainer to suggest that family members with like interests do things together, but it's possible they may need a suggestion or a reminder. It's likely, however, that the more they have fun together, the more they will cook up activities on their own.

Personality clashes are often the source of frustration between parent and child. Sometimes just meeting other moms and dads who face some of the same struggles can restore a sense of perspective and hope. Moms' groups such as MOPS and MomTime, Dads' groups, or groups for single parents can all offer support and friendship.


Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources to help you understand your child's personality

Popular questions on this topic: