Understanding Why They Do What They Do – Temperament

Last time I shared a bit about brain development and how I feel that it really helps to answer many of child development’s great questions, but what about all those emotions and feelings that get in the way of what the brain is trying to accomplish?

Temperament has fascinated me for more than two decades. It ends up being an integral part to why we think, feel and behave the way we do. I’ve watched the field of temperament grow from just one paragraph in a child development text to almost an entire chapter and even full scale parenting books on the topic.

“Why does one infant grimace strongly at the taste of strained peas while another barely flinches? ”

“Why does one toddler hide behind a parent’s leg while another races off to play at the new playground?”

“Why does one child need a standing desk and another a quiet space?”

All of these questions are ones I’ve asked as both a parent and an educator. If we root around the science of temperament, we can determine our own child’s particular temperament traits and create opportunities to support their natural temperamental tendencies. Designing guidance and discipline that provided support to their unique temperaments while at the same time teaching them positive social skills and appropriate behavior expectations.

As a parent of three distinctly different children it was obvious from the beginning that trying to parent them ‘all the exact same way’ wasn’t going to create success for anyone. As I learned to provide guidance to each of their individual temperaments, I was able to meet their individual needs as well as create opportunities for success. It wasn’t always easy (because don’t forget brain development), but it was always worth it.

Some of my favorite colleagues and friends in the temperament field.

Also, take time to browse our resources in Parenting in Challenging Moments. Many of our resources take temperament into consideration as we look at guiding children appropriately.

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Responding to Everyday Emotional Reactions in School Age Children

boy refusing to eat food

You know those moments when your kids have mild negative emotional reactions – like when your school age child whines about doing homework, gets in your face to MAKE you look at something, or has a little attitude about cleaning up a mess? These little emotionally charged moments aren’t a huge dispute, and they don’t mean that your child doesn’t respect you. It’s just a brief second where your child’s negative emotions just got a little ahead of them.

But how should we handle these little moments of anger or sadness or attitude? A recent study in the journal Family Relations explored this question!

Sometimes parents might gravitate toward a negative verbal response to these little moments – we might be critical of our child’s behavior (“you shouldn’t whine”), make negative statements about it (“grow up”), or verbally dismiss what our child said (“too bad”). But this study found that these parent negative verbal reactions actually increased the likelihood of children to do MORE negative behavior (whether it be whining, attitude, or whatever else).

On the flip side, some parents might try to offer some emotional support to their child. This is sometimes called emotion coaching – where you take the opportunity to validate your child, label the emotion, and help them problem solve (which is something we really work on with our younger children, right?) Previous research has suggested that supportive statements from parents can help decrease negative reactions from a child, but this study did not find a relationship between the supportive statements and these everyday type of negative interactions with school age children. The researchers suggest that maybe these supportive statements are more helpful with bigger outbursts rather than the everyday mild negative reactions.

Wait – if we aren’t responding negatively AND if being emotionally supportive doesn’t seem to make a difference in changing our child’s response, what are we actually supposed to do? Well according to this study, ignoring these little emotional reactions in our school age kiddos may be our best bet!

So next time you’ve had a long day, and your elementary age child is pushing your last button with that mild little negative emotional response, remember to just ignore it (which, I mean, at the end of a hard day sometimes it’s easier to ignore it than to engage in a emotion coaching type of situation anyway – parent win!). Ignoring your child’s little negative response may just give them the chance to practice their own emotion regulation skills!

Source: Sperling, J., & Repetti, R. L. (2018). Understanding Emotion Socialization Through Naturalistic Observations of Parent–Child Interactions. Family Relations, 67(3), 325-338. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/fare.12314?campaign=woletoc

Mackenzie Johnson

Parent to a little one with her own quirks. Celebrator of the concept of raising kids “from scratch”. Learner and lover of the parent-child relationship. Translator of research with a dose of reality. Certified Family Life Educator.

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Routines Promote Healthy Emotional Development

I catch a glimpse of the calendar and know that school will begin shortly, and that means many families will get back into a routine that will include hustle and bustle to get family members to school, day care, work, and sporting events.

For children, settling into a routine that includes school, homework, sports, playtime and family meals is very important. Children and youth do best when routines are regular, predictable, and consistent. When we eat and sleep with regular consistency, our bodies adjust and we feel good! Conversely, when we avoid sleep and eat the wrong foods, we pay the price in how we feel!

A study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics reports that family routines support children and their emotional development. And it is the social / emotional health that enables children to thrive in the classroom.

Routines that include singing, bedtime snacks, storytelling and connection with family caregivers are helpful for a good night’s rest. The nurturing we do to help children adjust to “back to school” is proving to be helpful in long term adjustment in both school and home settings.

Talking about the upcoming school routine can help alleviate any anxiety your child may have. Keep communication lines open with your child so that they can feel comfortable discussing with you the fears or questions they may have about the new school year. As a family, your routines are making a difference!

Barb Dunn Swanson

With two earned degrees from Iowa State University, Barb is a Human Sciences Specialist utilizing her experience working alongside communities to develop strong youth and families! With humor and compassion, she enjoys teaching, listening and learning to learn!

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The Role of Parents in Mental Health and Trauma Therapy

This week we welcome guest blogger Erin Neill. Erin is a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University. She is also a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Washington, DC. Erin is passionate about all things mental health.

Events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, abuse, and neglect are all examples of traumatic experiences that many children in our country and around the world experience on a daily basis. Experiencing a traumatic event leads to poor outcomes for children, including acting out, poor school performance, substance abuse, and mental health issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Fortunately, we know that there are effective treatments for childhood PTSD. One of those treatments is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. But what we don’t know is exactly how, or why, or for whom CBT works best. We need more information about this. For children we want to know, what is the role of parents?

There is some research that suggests that children and parents have a reciprocal relationship. That is, children and parents interact with each other to affect how CBT treatment is working. So far, however, there have been very few studies that show this type of relationship.

In my research, I looked at data for children who had experienced a traumatic event and developed PTSD as a result. These children, and only the children, attended 12 weeks of a CBT intervention. We also asked moms (who brought their children to treatment each week) to report on their child’s PTSD symptoms as well as their own maternal depression symptoms.

The most exciting finding was that even though the moms did not receive any treatment themselves, their depression symptoms decreased significantly over the course of their child’s treatment. But even more, they were part of the reason that their child got better over time. I found that it wasn’t just that child PTSD symptoms decreased over time, or because of the treatment, but at least part of the reason that kids’ PTSD symptoms decreased was because the moms’ depression decreased as well. I also found a reciprocal relationship; Part of the reason that moms’ depression symptoms decreased over time was because of their child’s PTSD symptom decrease.

This data provides evidence that moms and children really are affecting each other’s mental health. This is important to know, because if only one person can attend treatment, we know that therapy can affect the mental health of the dyad and of the family system.

This is just one step in learning how, and why, and for whom these treatments work. We continue to need more research in this area because children will continue to experience traumatic events, and they deserve effective treatments.

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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A Look at Corporal Punishment

Last week we talked about how consistent discipline builds trust. This week we asked Dr. Carl Weems PhD, Professor and Chair of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University about the effects of corporal punishment and its impact on youth’s ability to regulate their emotions.

In the study, Parenting Behaviors, Parent Heart Rate Variability and their Associations with Adolescent Heart Rate Variability, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Dr. Weems and colleagues looked at the associations between parenting behaviors and emotion regulation.

Tell us a little about what your study looked at:

Emotion regulation is associated with positive social functioning and psychological adjustment among youth. Emotion regulation involves both the automatic and voluntary control of negative and positive emotions using physiological, cognitive, and behavioral means to achieve goals. Resting heart rate variability (i.e., the natural variability in the time between heart beats while an individual is at rest) is a physiological index of an individual’s emotion regulation. In our study we fund that certain parenting behaviors were related to this.

How did corporal punishment impact your findings?

Inconsistent discipline and corporal punishment were negatively associated with adolescent resting heart rate variability. Suggesting that corporal punishment is associated with diminished levels of emotion regulation. Theoretically, the extended use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique may be especially harmful for youth with low heart rate variability because it may cause youth to view their home environment as threatening and decrease their sense of control over their environment, which may exacerbate existing emotion dysregulation and maintain low heart rate variability levels.

Did you find impacts of positive parenting as well?

Positive parenting and parental involvement were positively associated with emotion regulation-suggesting these are associated with increased emotion regulation ability. Inconsistent discipline and parental involvement also influenced the relationship between parent and adolescent resting heart rate variability. Such that that in the context of low inconsistent discipline (i.e., consistent discipline), there was a positive association between parent and adolescent resting heart rate variability.

If you were to share one important message from this study what would that be?

This finding suggests that consistent discipline may entrain parent and adolescent heart rate variability (i.e., make parent and adolescent resting heart rate variability more similar). The findings provide evidence for a role of parenting behaviors in shaping the development of adolescent resting heart rate variability with inconsistent discipline and parental involvement potentially influencing the entrainment of resting heart rate variability in parents and their children.

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Discipline is different for everyone

We know this to be true. Parenting is not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of journey. Understanding that each child is unique becomes important even as we consider guidance and discipline. Guidance and discipline strategies will change as children grow and they will also be unique to each particular child. We won’t have just one strategy that we use from start to finish. We will, however, select strategies that grow as our child grows and that match their temperament and personality.

The first step then is selecting a discipline strategy that is appropriate for the age of the child. Appropriate toddler age strategies include redirecting and ignoring. Examples of appropriate strategies for preschoolers include natural consequences or time-in. Consider this more effective version of time-out called ‘time-in’ – essentially it is cuddle time or positive quiet time to get the child’s needs met and ensure emotional regulation for both parent and child.

The second step is then selecting the strategy that meets each child’s particular temperament and personality. Some children will respond quickly to a particular strategy while others may have a limited response. You may even need to select different strategies for siblings due to their different temperaments.

The third step can actually be considered ‘one size fits all’. Consistency. Consistently applying your strategy over and over, at home, at grandma’s and at the store is a huge piece to guidance and discipline success. This means that your strategy needs to be able to be implemented in all places. We don’t select one strategy for grandma’s house and a different one for the store. This is confusing to children and they may become unsure of exactly what your expectations are.

Guidance and discipline is a balance between being loving and kind while at the same time being firm and consistent.

Resources shared below have additional suggestions on age-appropriate strategies.

Disciplining Your Preschooler — Understanding Children

Disciplining Your Toddler — Understanding Children

Parenting Young Teens: Parenting in Stepfamilies

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Three Presents

I received a wonderful message from a reader of our blog. I asked the writer for permission to share.   I love when our readers let us know that something has touched them personally. 

Beautiful little girl child with shopping colorful paper bags in

Listen in on Laura’s thoughts….and thank you Laura for being willing to share.

When I was growing up, each of us seven kids in my family received three Christmas presents from Mom and Dad, under the guise of Santa Claus: a toy present, a clothes present, and a book present. There may have been discrepancies in the total cost of each kid’s gifts, but that didn’t matter to us. We each had three packages to open. It was fair.

This system also helped Mom and Dad administer their Christmas budget. They were not the type to go into debt; if they couldn’t pay for it, they didn’t buy it. But they could plan ahead – quite necessary when dealing with 21 presents (seven kids times three)!

In addition, they taught us kids a lesson about finances. They told us that parents would leave money on the kitchen table for Santa – to pay him for the presents. They said some parents could leave more money for Santa than they could, while other parents couldn’t leave as much. Santa then considered each family’s Christmas list against the money and provided accordingly. That made sense to us and was a simple way to explain why some of our friends might get more, or fewer, presents than we did.

But most important, my parents were sharing their values. We learned we couldn’t have everything we wanted – we had to make choices. Sure we may have wanted three toys, but we also needed socks or a new pair of pants – we learned to understand limits. We also grew to enjoy and value reading.

I took my parents’ three present system to heart, and my husband and I followed it with our own children.

I can’t quote the exact research that supports my parents’ – and my – approach to holiday gift giving. But it seems to be in line with the concepts the specialists’ teach: treat children fairly, practice love and limits, promote literacy, and stick to your budget.

Laura Sternweis

Laura is a communications specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She has a B.S. in communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and an MS in rural sociology from Iowa State. She’s a former farm kid and the parent of two young adult children.


Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Kindness is learned by feeling kindness

friendsAs I was reading about kindness I became fascinated by the brain research. I sat there thinking “Well of course, the brain is in charge of our feelings. Why wouldn’t it be the center of this conversation?”.

Our brains are in charge of our emotions and our actions. Our brains take the input we receive from others. Process the information. Tell us how to emotionally respond. And our actions become the response. Makes perfect sense. The brain is in charge of kindness.

And then I read this, “our brain learns best about kindness when it FEELS kindness”. There is was.

How should I teach my children about kindness?  Help them FEEL kindness.

Children learn kindness when they ‘feel’ what its like to make someone else smile. And their brain learns.

They learn about kindness when they share with others, when they comfort others, when they give to others. And their brain learns.

Suddenly writing this blog topic wasn’t rocket science, but is was brain science. It was simply thinking about all of the ways that children can be kind to others and understanding that while they do this – their brain learns.


Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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More than half of us have had ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’

This week we welcome our guest blogger Kristi Cooper, Human Sciences Family Life Specialist.

Sunday Dinner at Grandma’s

I love this quote from the program “Lemonade for Life” – “You can’t rewrite the beginning of your story but you can change how it ends.”

Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) affect a child’s neurological, social-emotional and cognitive development. ACES may eventually manifest in chronic health conditions in adulthood.

I’m part of the 55% of Iowans who have more than one ACE. When I think of the chaotic times in my childhood, I’m grateful for the touch points that kept me ‘on track’. The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences tells us these touch points are called resiliency factors. These resiliency factors include individual capabilities, attachment and belonging with caring competent people and a protective community, faith or cultural process. Let me share a few of these touchpoints from my own life and maybe you can see how resilience can be woven through the fabric of our lives.

I am grateful for the elementary school nurse who never questioned my stomach aches and always had clean dry clothes for me to wear when I had an ‘accident’. I’m grateful for my 3rd grade teacher’s calm, caring approach and the interesting hands-on projects she had us do. She introduced me to creative writing which became an outlet for me whenever I felt life was overwhelming. I’m grateful for my grandmothers who loved me unconditionally and were always interested in me. I’m grateful for the routine of Sunday church followed by dinner at Grandma’s house with its comfort food, safety, hugs and laughter. All of these helped me feel normal and sane when life felt scary.

Spending time outdoors with cousins was an important touchpoint for me. Our many adventures catching tadpoles and crawdads, jumping the bogs in the pasture, riding bikes for miles, building snow forts and climbing in the empty corncrib took my mind away from the hurtful times. Music was another touchpoint for me. I saved my 4-H and birthday money and bought a guitar. With the creative writing gift from Miss Ihnen and my new instrument, I made it through a few more turbulent years.

All of these touchpoints helped to reset my stress response – all it takes is a 20 minute activity to reduce heart rate, regulate breathing again and re-focus the mind. As an adult I use meditation, yoga, journaling and sewing projects to reduce anxiety, keep depression away and help my mind think clearly. I have a therapist I consult when I need to sort things out. I’ve used my early experiences to change how I parented my children, hopefully, changing the course of my grandchildren’s lives. These individual resiliency practices combined with positive social relationships and trauma informed community resources help heal the impact of adverse childhood experiences and to reduce the impact of traumatic events.

What are the touchpoints that help(ed) you survive and thrive?

Janet Smith

Janet Smith is a Human Science Specialist-Family LIfe with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She currently provides family life programming in eight counties in southeast Iowa. Janet is a "parenting survivor". She is the mother of Jared-21, Hannah-20, and Cole-15. She and her husband, David have faced many challenges together, including their son Jared's Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy diagnosis.

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When a Grandparent Has Dementia

When a grandparent has dementia, the grandchildren may not understand why grandma or grandpa is becoming forgetful, mom or dad is stressed out and everything is different than it used to be. However, parents can help their young children and adolescents learn to cope.  The most important message is to be as honest as you can. Offer clear explanations and plenty of reassurance. Try to get a sense for how much information each child can cope with, and tailor your discussion accordingly.

This month we will discuss ways to talk to children and adolescents about dementia and share ideas about how to help children cope. Research has shown that dementia can dramatically change the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, but it doesn’t have to be all negative.

Join us  as we talk about caregiving adults with dementia and the impact it has on young children.


Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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My favorite temperament type

ThinkstockPhotos-465790704Oh oh…. I said it out loud (well sort of). The feisty child one of my favorite temperament types! I just can’t help it! I love interacting with a feisty temperament. I know that sounds silly but even as a preschool teacher I was always at my best when I was engaged with the feisty kiddo. Maybe ‘favorite’ isn’t the right word to use. I guess it was just that ‘I get them’. I understand the feisty traits. I ‘get’ where they are coming from.

Now just to clarify, I’m pretty sure my parents would not have labeled me as feisty. My feisty traits were sprinkled with a whole lot of adaptability. Which, for me, held the negative parts of feisty in check. So when it comes to feisty temperaments I understand that sense of  being determined. Of wanting what I want. Of being persistent. In the moment of feistiness, I know how your ‘gut’ feels. What your stomach is doing. How fast your brain synapses are firing. I understand that, I get it.

So what did I learn about interacting with a feisty temperament? Most importantly, that a calm, cool and collected demeanor is the best way to approach the feisty child. You see, amidst their feistiness they won’t be able to hear your ‘reasoning or logic’. Their feistiness is in the way. It’s too loud in their head, they literally can’t hear you. But, they can still see your reactions.

That’s about all that you can do sometimes. SHOW them. Model for them how you want them to respond or behave. There’s little time or room for long drawn out liturgies and lessons on appropriate language or the use of gentle touches. Feisty kids need that ‘extra‘ moment to see calm cool and collected from you. They are looking for you to ‘show‘ them how to tame that feisty feeling that has overtaken their body.

So very hard sometimes yet so very vital to teaching them self-control.

What are some techniques you have ‘shown’?


Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Was I too late?

personWhen my oldest child was one year old, I was introduced to the world of ‘Temperament’. I remember thinking at that time, “She’s already 1! Am I too late! What if I already ruined her by not knowing her temperament!?”

It sounds silly now, as she teeters on the brink of 18, but back then all I could think about was the year I had missed BT (Before Temperament). I can tell you this with 100% confidence. It is NOT TO LATE! Learning to understand your child’s temperament, along with your own temperament, can happen at any time. It can happen right now regardless of your child’s age.

This month we talk about taking the time to learn your child’s ‘temperament style’ and then parent according to that style. Parenting is not a ‘one size fits all’.  Taking care of any child (grandchild, neighbor, niece, nephew, sibling) isn’t even close to ‘one size fits most’. Building relationships with children means taking the time to learn to appreciate what their genetics granted them, find a way to build their confidence and self-esteem and guide them into social competence.

Where can you start? By learning about their style. By appreciating the unique characteristics of that style. By implementing one thing to show them you understand that style.  Here are a couple of GREAT places to start.

What is that ONE thing that you will do to parent ‘to their unique style’. Share with us!

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Revisiting January 2013 – Corporal Punishment revisited

In light of all the recent publicity around corporal punishment and children, I thought it might be appropriate to revisit our January 2013 podcast and subsequent blogs.

Click below to read about alternatives to physical punishment of children and how you can guide and discipline them in a more loving way.

Corporal punishment and alternative methods of discipline or our January 2014 topic Anger and parenting

Look back through some of our other topics while you’re there. We would love to talk again about some of them!

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Everyone Is Doing It- Peer Pressure

Everyone is going, all the kids sneak candy into the theater and no one else has to be home by 11 p.m. When kids are facing peer pressure, how should parents respond? Kids of all ages may find peer pressure hard to resist.  Often kids give in to peer pressure because they want to be liked; they want to have friends and be part of a group. Kids may be afraid that others will make fun of them if they are different or don’t go along with what’s being said or done. Sometimes kids give in to peer pressure because they want to try This month we will take a close look at the positive and negative aspects of peer pressure. We will offer ideas on how parents can help their children maintain friends while learning how to resist pressure and also standing up for what they believe is right.

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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No, I Won’t Come and Get You

Have you ever been homesick? Well I have, and it’s an awful feeling. You just want to be back at home where you feel comfortable and secure. And kids who go to camp – no matter how much they want to be there – aren’t immune from getting homesick. So how do you handle this challenge?

Let’s start with prevention. Last week Lori talked about writing letters ahead of time and having the camp counselors deliver one each day. That’s one great idea! We also talked about a child practicing being away from home overnight. That’s another great idea. Another is to work as a family in selecting the camp, packing the bag, and talking through what to expect. It’s okay to mention the possibility of missing home – parents, siblings, pets, food, bed, etc. Just don’t promise that you will go pick up a homesick camper!!

Instead, talk about what your child might do at camp when missing home. Let your child come up with some ideas and then add things like:

  • keep busy with the activities, don’t stay in the cabin
  • talk with a camp counselor or other kids
  • make a list of all the fun things you want to tell your parents when you get home

Camp is all about having fun. But it’s also about kids developing confidence and gaining independence. A little struggle with homesickness may be painful but can be overcome and helps shore up confidence.

So Mom – when you get a text from your son pleading to come home after the first day, don’t hit the reply button with a yes. Dad, when you get a tearful phone call, agree that you too are missing your daughter. Then quickly steer the conversation to what’s happening at camp, not what’s going on at home. Could it be that camp helps foster some independence for Mom and Dad too? How have you handled homesick kids at camp?

Learn all about Iowa 4-H camping.

Donna Donald

Donna Donald is a Human Sciences specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach who has spent her career working with families across the lifespan. She believes families are defined by function as well as form. Donna entered parenthood as a stepmother to three daughters and loves being a grandmother of seven young adults.

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