Temperament Types as a handle for parenting

Most parents have experienced frustration in dealing their teenagers at some point – or maybe all the time. And if our teen has a brain that is atypical on top of “just” being a teenage brain, look out! No matter how much we love our kids, parents of teens with disorders often feel stumped, hopeless, and/or scared beyond words. We need all the help we can get to navigate these years so that everyone comes out the other side in one piece.

Whether your child or teen is atypical or not, it is very useful to know about and understand their temperament type, sometimes known as personality type. Our family became acquainted with temperament types 10 years ago, thanks to our ever-helpful family counselor. It is possibly the most useful concept I’ve learned in life – not just for parenting our sons, but for understanding friends, family, myself – anyone. ‘Tis a shame we don’t all learn about temperament types as part of standard school curriculum.

If the phrase “temperament type” doesn’t ring a bell, maybe you’ve heard of the Myers-Briggs personality tests (Myers-Briggs Type Indicators®, or MBTI), or you’ve seen the book Please Understand Me by David Keirsey. Or, you’ve heard people say something like, “I’m an ESFJ, but he’s an INTP.”

This blog post could be the first of many regarding temperament types, because there’s a lot of useful and interesting aspects to cover. (Corporations and the military also apply these concepts, not just psych-people).

To start with the basic idea: there are four basic temperaments, and there are four types within each temperament, for a total of 16 types. Each of us has inborn preferences that put us into one of the 16 temperament types.

Your reaction may be, “What rubbish! There are more than 16 types of people in the world.” Of course there are. Here’s the deal: there are four dimensions, or aspects of temperament, that help us figure out our “type”. For each of those dimensions, you have to decide whether you are E or I, N or S, F or T,  J or P (more about those letters in a minute.) But each one of those dimensions is a spectrum, a scale with an infinite number of positions. For instance, one person might be waaay out there on the “E” side, and another person can be just a toenail away from being an “I”, but they’ll both get put in with the “E”s. Of course, anything in between is also possible. The same holds true for the other three dimensions. That means there’s a whole lot of unique combinations of where a person might have his or her four temperament flags planted. Different life experiences (such as a traumatic childhood) can also lead to differences between people who otherwise have the same “type”.

Now, what does that alphabet soup of letters mean? We are probably all most familiar with the first pairing of letters: “E” is for Extravert, “I” is for Introvert. The meaning here is a little different than what we normally think of – not so much a matter of outgoing vs. shy, but how  people affect your energy level. An extravert gains energy by being around people. An introvert is drained by interaction, and recharges his/her batteries by being alone.

Next up is Intuitive (represented with an “N”, since the introverts got dibs on the “I”) vs. Sensing (“S”). This relates to how you take in information. Intuitive people look for patterns and connections; sensing people rely primarily on what their five senses tell them.

How you make decisions is the next dimension. Are you a (“F”) Feeler (subjective, value-based, consider the impact of your decision on others), or a (“T”) Thinker (objective, logical, analytical)?

The last dimension is how you organize the world. In my opinion, the words used to describe these choices aren’t such a great fit for the ideas they represent. Those who are Judging (“J”) like to have things settled and decisions made; those who are Perceiving (“P”) like having their options open.

None of these is “right”, or “wrong”. Each trait has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes we admire the traits we don’t have; other times, we are convinced the way we are is the “right” way to be, and the other people are too [whatever].

A lot of times it isn’t easy to determine where you are on one or more of the dimensions. Usually, you can figure it out by taking a quiz that has many questions related to each dimension. Even then, it can be difficult to decide on the answers you think generally fit you best. Anyway, once you are done, you total up the scores and presto! The answer key tells you what you are.

(You can also try taking the quiz on behalf of someone else – like a teen who doesn’t want to – and if some of the traits are hard to sort out, you can work backwards by reading descriptions of the temperament types most likely to be a match.)

Here’s an overview of how the 16 temperament types get sorted into one of four temperaments. The “how you take in information” dimension (N vs. S) always gets to play a role in sorting the temperament types, assisted by either “how you make decisions” (F vs. T) or the “how you organize the world” (J vs. P). Introversion/extraversion goes along for the ride, and subdivides the groups formed by the other 3 dimensions.

Different experts have different sets of names for the four temperaments and the 16 types. Below, you’ll find for each temperament: the two-letter combo that defines it, the name Keirsey has given the temperament, two of the key things the group values the most, and the four types that are included in the temperament.

  • NF – Idealists – value relationships, interior journeys  – ENFJ, INFJ, ENFP, INFP
  • NT – Rationals – value knowledge, logic – ENTJ, INTJ, ENTP, INTP
  • SJ – Guardians – value order, fairness – ESTJ, ISTJ, ESFJ, ISFJ
  • SP – Artisans – value freedom, action – ESTP, ISTP, ESFP, ISFP

You can see why this can be useful in understanding family dynamics: one style of parenting does not fit all! In our family, I’m the lone Guardian (ISTJ). Before learning about temperaments, I had assumed that my dear ones believe, as we Guardians do, that it is important to follow the rules (about school, home life, etc.). {I grew up in a predominantly Guardian family, so that seemed only natural to me.) But as it turns out, my husband and one son are (different types of) Artisans, and our other son is a Rational. Following the rules is not their priority – that’s not how they are wired, just like I am not wired to be freewheeling and bold. Once this sunk in, it helped me to tone down (at least a little bit, at least some fraction of the time) my expectations when we were not all on the same page about what “should” be happening.

The book Nurture by Nature, by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, is a wonderful resource for applying temperament types to parenting. It guides you through figuring out temperament types for family members, then gives an in-depth look at what to expect from kids in each of the 16 temperament types as preschoolers, school-aged kids, and adolescents. Each chapter addresses the challenges as well as the joys of parenting kids of that  type, and provides a summary page of “what works” (parenting strategies).

I’ll admit that while our kids were growing up, I felt the descriptions in this book were pretty good, but not a perfect match for our sons. However, in looking over the appropriate chapters now, it feels like the authors have described them almost perfectly!

Unless you are really on top of your game for always figuring out everything behind the personalities and actions of your loved ones, I recommend getting to know more about temperament types. Doing so may just decrease the friction or tension that can result … When Temperaments Collide .


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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

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