Understanding temperament and anxiety: a guide for parents

Emerging Minds, Australia, October

Related to Child anxiety

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to help parents understand temperament, that is, a child’s general nature or mood and how it affects their behaviour. It explains the tendency for children with a ‘slow-to-warm-up’ temperament to experience anxiety, and how this can be addressed by building resilience and strong, positive relationships.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. In this resource, the term ‘parent’ includes biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, and other caregivers who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Understanding temperament and anxiety

Temperament’ refers to a person’s nature or general mood, especially as it affects their behaviour. It is part of what makes us all unique and special. Temperament is a combination of mental, physical and emotional characteristics that shape how we respond to the world. This resource aims to support you to understand your child’s temperament and connections to anxiety.

The main thing to remember as a parent is that all children are unique and the characteristics a child is born with influence how they react and respond to events and situations in their life. There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ temperament, and it is common for children to have a different character, temper and humour to their parents.

Temperament is often identified in children from infancy. Some children are naturally easy-going and generally content. Other children can naturally find it difficult when transitioning into new environments, and some may be more cautious in new situations, but they will engage with support, guidance and repeated exposure/experiences.

It is common for people to use generalised and unhelpful labels for different types of temperaments, including describing children as being ‘difficult’; or a baby as ‘fussy’, easily upset or hard to settle. Alternatively, an infant who is generally content and adapts without fuss to changes in routine may be described as an ‘easy’ baby. You may also hear seemingly well-meaning friends or family label infants and young children as ‘slow-to-warm-up’ – meaning they are cautious and sometimes fussy when faced with new situations, but they do ‘warm up’ with repeated exposure and experiences.

Temperament can also be described in relation to things such as:

  • how strongly a child reacts to boundaries a parent has put in place
  • the degree to which they can control their behaviour
  • how they show feelings
  • their persistence; and
  • how comfortable they are with new people and experiences.

Check out the Raising Children Network for further explanation of temperament, reactivity, self-regulation and sociability.

If your child has a withdrawn, slow-to-warm-up temperament which is different to yours it doesn’t mean they have anxiety. Your child might need more support than others and perhaps more than you needed as a child. With extra patience, time and support they may become comfortable with new situations or to be more willing to give new things a try.

However, it’s important to know that children who are naturally more shy and cautious in new situations – those who tend to be nervous and distressed and want to withdraw – are more vulnerable to the ongoing difficulties related to anxiety. In understanding your child’s temperament it is important to be curious about your child’s emotions and the purpose of their behaviours. This can help you to identify any signs of anxiety early – before it significantly impacts their daily life.

Whatever your child’s temperament, you can help build up their confidence and resilience skills by strengthening your relationship with them in simple ways:

  • Make time for play – even five minutes a day can make a huge difference to a child.
  • Praise your child for things you notice about them and what they do – this builds self-esteem.
  • Learn skills together – such as naming feelings, or slow breathing – so you can support each other to use these when needed.

To lower your child’s risk of anxiety, or help them control anxious feelings and thoughts, refer to Supporting a child with anxiety for more strategies on building your child’s confidence and resilience.

If you are unsure, or feel you or your child needs more support, speak to your general practitioner (GP). They can talk about your concerns and offer other strategies should they be required. To learn more about the role of a GP, watch this video.

By taking the time to understand your child’s temperament, you can help them to navigate the world with strategies to support their individuality and develop resilience which will give them a great foundation for the future.

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