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Childhood Temperament and the Risk for Addiction

  1. Temperament Characteristics
  2. Personality Development
  3. Family, Environment, and Temperament
  4. Understanding Addiction Through the Lens of Temperament
  5. Does My Temperament Doom Me to a Life of Addiction?
  6. Conclusion

Temperament: Your Lifelong Friend

Back in the psychological dark ages (pre-1960s), children were viewed as blank slates. Parents shaped children into upstanding citizens, or not, and if not, parents were to blame. Chess and Thomas introduced the idea of childhood temperament to the understanding and treatment of children in the 1960s by demonstrating that each child is born with relatively stable behavioral characteristics.1 Differences in childhood temperament can be seen as early as four-months of age. We now know that there are cultural and sex differences as well in temperament structure.2
 Temperament: Your Lifelong Friend

Temperament Characteristics

What are these temperament characteristics we are born with? Chess and Thomas' clinical temperament dimensions included energy (intensity and activity level) and adjustability (approach-withdrawal, sensitivity level, adaptability, and frustration tolerance).1,7,10 Subsequent research has identified higher order temperament traits of:3,4

  • Surgency/extraversion.
  • Negative affect.
  • Effortful control.
  • Emotionality.
  • Activity.
  • Sociability.

All children can be rated on a continuum for each of these traits.

Personality Development

Children grow up and develop personalities. Where do our personalities come from?

  • While life experiences certainly influence personality development, some personality traits are inherited and begin as temperament traits.4 Psychological research continues to explore how best to conceptualize personality, but according to the Big Five Theory, which captures a portion of the current understanding, there are five independent higher order personality traits on which all adults can also be rated, forming the acronym "OCEAN":5

    • Openness to New Experience.
    • Conscientiousness.
    • Extraversion.
    • Agreeableness.
    • Neuroticism.
  • Each higher order trait encompasses a suite of lower order traits. For example, Neuroticism contains traits such as:

It is easy to see how some personality traits develop from inherited temperament styles. For instance, children higher in negative affect would be more at risk to become adults higher in Neuroticism than children lower in negative affect.

Family, Environment, and Temperament

Chess and Thomas emphasized that the clinical importance of temperament characteristics depends on the goodness-of-fit between the child and the caregivers. Some children are harder to manage than others due to their temperament, but parents who modify their parenting style to fit their child's temperament can help their children learn to manage their own temperament-related behaviors.

There are no "good" temperaments or "bad" temperaments. However, while a child's temperament can change to some degree, depending on life experiences, children do not "outgrow" a harder-to-manage temperament. Instead, they must learn ways to manage it.

Understanding Addiction Through the Lens of Temperament

How might childhood temperament increase the risk for adult addiction?

  • There is research that links addictive behavior with impulsivity and lower frustration tolerance,which are both temperament traits.8,9

Research has also found that different temperaments follow distinct causal pathways to different childhood behaviors and some of those behaviors increase the risk of adult addiction.11

  • For instance, one pathway involves children with low fearful inhibition. These children would likely be more at risk for addictive behavior as adults than children high in fearful inhibition because they would minimize the risks of drug/alcohol use.
  • Another pathway involves children with problems of emotion regulation. These children would likely be more at risk to abuse drugs/alcohol as adults than children with higher emotional regulation because drugs/alcohol would, momentarily, help them reduce their emotional upset.
  • Active children who rush into new experiences also would likely be more at risk to experiment with drugs/alcohol as adults than less active children because they might see drugs as new and exciting, not potentially dangerous.
  • On the other hand, children with a low sensitivity threshold (highly sensitive) might be less likely to abuse drugs/alcohol as adults than children with a higher sensitivity threshold (less sensitive) because they would experience the effects of drugs/alcohol sooner, or in a more intense manner, which might deter them from using.

Does My Temperament Doom Me to a Life of Addiction?

While certain childhood temperaments do make those individuals more vulnerable to problems with addiction as adults, temperament is not fate. "Resiliencies the individual acquires (through parenting or later life experiences) can affect the extent to which genetic predispositions lead to the behavioral and other manifestations of addiction."6 One way to increase the resiliency of children with temperaments that put them more at risk for addictive behavior as adults is to teach these children how to handle their temperament-related behaviors more effectively before they become adults. In particular, children who are active, high sensation-seeking and impulsive, lower in frustration tolerance, and/or lower in fearful inhibition would benefit if parents (and schools) understood the temperamental origin and potential for future addiction of these behaviors.


Addictive behavior is pervasive, with many causes and risk factors. One risk factor is childhood temperament because certain childhood temperaments are more likely to lead to adult personalities that are vulnerable to addictive behavior, especially if these individuals experience environmental stress.

Education and interventions that help children with these temperament traits learn to manage their temperament-related behaviors more effectively can be one more tool to use in the addiction-reduction tool box.


  1. Thomas, A., Chess, S., Birch, H.G., Hertzig, M.E., & Korn, S. (1963). Behavioral individuality in early childhood. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  2. Kohnstamn, G.A. (1989). Temperament in childhood: Cross-cultural and sex differences, In Kohnstamn, G.A., Bates, J.E., & Rothbart, M.K. (Eds.), Temperament in childhood (pp. 483-508). Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Putnam, S.P., Ellis, LK. & Rothbart, M.K. (2001). The structure of temperament from infancy through adolescence. In A. Eliasz & A. Angleitner (Eds.), Advances in research on temperament (pp. 165-182). Lengerich, DE: Pabst Science.
  4. Buss, A. H., & Plomin, R. (2014). Temperament (PLE: Emotion): Early Developing Personality Traits. Psychology Press.
  5. McCrae, R. R. and John, O. P. (1992), An Introduction to the Five-Factor Model and Its Applications. Journal of Personality, 60:175-215. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1992.tb00970.x
  6. American Society of Addictive Medicine (ASAM) (2016).
    Buss, A.H. & Plomin, R. (2014). Temperament (PLE: Emotion): Early developing personality traits.
  7. Thomas, A. Chess,S. & Birch, H.G. (1968). Temperament and behavior disorders in children. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  8. Shenassa, E. D., Paradis, A. D., Dolan, S. L., Wilhelm, C. S. and Buka, S. L. (2012). Childhood impulsive behavior and problem gambling by adulthood: a 30-year prospective community-based study. Addiction, 107:160-168. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2011.03571.x
  9. Ko, C.H., Yen, J.Y., Yen, C.F., Chen, C.S. and Wang, S.Y. The Association between Internet Addiction and Belief of Frustration Intolerance: The Gender Difference. CyberPsychology & Behavior. June 2008, 11(3): 273-278. doi:10.1089/cpb.2007.0095.
  10. Chess, S. & Thomas, A. (1986). Temperament in clinical practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  11. Frick, P. J., & Morris, A. S. (2004). Temperament and developmental pathways to conduct problems. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33(1), 54-68.



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