The reasons why most siblings are so different

QUESTION – What is Temperament?

Dear Adele,

My husband and I have three children who are as different from each other as an apple, an orange, and a banana. Each has some wonderful characteristics, but at the same time, each has distinctive flaws and challenges. We are the same adults and parent the children exactly the same way, as much as possible. What accounts for this, do you think?



Dear Wondering,

I wonder if the difference you see in your children’s approach to life and their challenges is something psychologists call temperament. According to Oxford Languages, temperament is “a person’s or animal’s nature, especially as it permanently affects their behaviour.” Words with a similar meaning include disposition, nature, character, personality, makeup, or mood pattern. In Psychology, temperament is often referred to as “an aspect of personality concerned with emotional dispositions and reactions, and their speed and intensity.”

According to the article ‘How to Understand Your Child’s Temperament’, eight characteristics determine temperament in children.

  • Activity Level: The level of physical activity and the regularity of basic physical functions such as eating, sleeping, and eliminating.
  • Approach and Withdrawal: A child's speed and openness to accept new people.
  • Adaptability: The readiness with which a child adjusts to new situations.
  • Intensity: The level of positivity or negativity with which a child responds.
  • Mood: The amount of pleasantness a child exudes verbally and behaviorally.
  • Attention Span: The ability to focus.
  • Distractibility: The speed at which a child can be distracted.
  • Sensory Threshold: The quantity of stimulation required to bring on a response from a child.

Depending on the dominance of each of these characteristics within a child, most youngsters will fall within one of three categories: easy, shy and cautious, or challenging and feisty. These categories are called temperaments in children.

About 40 per cent of children fall into the easy category. They generally have a positive mood, are mildly intense, adapt easily, have little anxiety when frustrated, and are generally a joy to be around.

Roughly 15 per cent fall into the shy and cautious category. Their moods are of mild intensity. The children adapt to new situations slowly, are hesitant and shy to make new friends, and may be anxious or have physical symptoms in new circumstances.

Challenging, feisty children make up about 10 per cent of the population. They tend to react negatively and intensely to the world, may be fussy, may have temper tantrums, and be hard to please. These children can be explosive, stubborn, and intense. They adapt less well to new situations. They may present problems at play in the classroom and can be a strain on the family behaviourally. Such kids may be very good at sports, outdoor activities, and leadership roles.

The remaining 35 per cent of the children are a mix of the types or fall somewhere in between.

Temperaments neither predict nor define behaviour but help parents understand how children react and relate to the world most of the time. They also help parents identify children’s strengths and the support they may need. Knowing the temperament of a child can assist the adult in teaching a child how to express his wants and emotions better. It can keep parents from blaming a child. Adult frustration can be avoided because the grownups have a better idea of what to expect and may be able to anticipate and circumvent problems. As well it can also help a family choose the right daycare situation for a particular child.

Temperaments are innate. This may explain why kids are different from each other though born into the same family. Temperaments are not generally thought to be changeable, but the intensity of a disposition can be affected by cultural values and parenting style. They are also influenced by the environment in which a child is reared and the adult expectations at home, school, and in the community. Sometimes, as a child matures, the extremes of their temperament may soften, as behaviour is affected by the child's experiences.

It is important to study your own temperament, Wondering, and that of your husband. A better understanding of that will lead to a better understanding of the temperament of your three children and how your parenting may have to be somewhat different, depending on the nature of each child. Examples follow:

If one of your children is more challenging and reactive, it will be wise to give that child plenty of time outdoors, with lots of active play in sports. If one of your children is shy and more cautious, they may need help to assert him or herself and be drawn into family discussions.  In a very self-regulated child, parents will have to watch for perfectionism. In a less self-regulated child, the parents will need to make an effort to reward the child when they are able to focus and concentrate. A child who is very sociable and easily makes friends will need to be encouraged into one-on-one time. A less social child who has difficulty with transitions and changes will do better with regular routines and familiar social groups.

Good articles on this topic include CSEFEL‘s ‘Understanding Temperament in Infants and Toddlers’ and the piece entitled ‘Temperament: What It Is and Why It Matters’.

I hope this has been of help to you, Wondering. Let me conclude with a few inspiring quotations on temperament:

There is no personal charm so great as the charm of a cheerful temperament.” — Henry Van Dyke 

Good nature is worth more than knowledge, more than money, more than honor, to the persons who possess it.— Henry Ward Beecher

A man’s happiness or unhappiness depends as much on his temperament as on his destiny.”— Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

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