Temperament types and mental health challenges

This post from two years ago introduced the idea of temperament types and how understanding them can improve parenting outcomes. Now we’ll take a look at the correlation – or confusion – between temperament and atypical mental patterns.

In researching this on the internet, I hoped to find expert advice to pass along. Alas, I didn’t uncover a whole lot of material. In addition, none of the search results used the temperament types described by David Keirsey, which were the framework for the original post.

Before sharing what I did find, here’s a look at what we’ve learned from therapists over the years regarding the Keirsey temperaments and mental health challenges.

Our family counselor introduced us to the concept of temperament types when our sons were in elementary school. The table below is extracted and paraphrased from one she gave us. (Since the temperament types go by a variety of names, I’ve included the two-letter abbreviation of the traits that define them – e.g., Guardians (SJ) are Sensing and Judging – in case you know the types by different names.)

Idealists – NF Rationals – NT Guardians – SJ Artisans –  SP
What they value most Relationships, interior journeys Knowledge, logic Order, fairness Freedom, action
Views on authority and respect Compliant; respect integrity They are their own authority; respect competency Non-critically compliant; respect status and authority Must be challenged; respect strength and bravery
Common mental disorder Dissociation, eating disorders Phobias, obsessive Depression, psychosomatic Rage, addictions
Common person-ality disorder Histrionic, borderline Obsessive-compulsive, avoidant Passive-aggressive, borderline Narcissism, antisocial

Many Artisans (adventurous freedom-seekers) run into trouble because their priority is experiencing life in the here and now, on their own terms. On the other hand, many Rationals (big fans of logic) won’t conform to societal norms unless it makes sense to them.After our family counselor educated us about these types, she said, “All four types have their strengths and weaknesses – but which two types do you think have the easier time getting along in society?”

The answer was the Idealists (people-oriented) and the Guardians (dependable rule-followers).

Our younger son Alan is an ESTP – one of the Artisan types. They tend to be in the Arts, or enjoy working with tools. When Alan’s attention problems in high school led us to seek an official ADD diagnosis, his first psychologist (also an adherent of the Keirsey model) said he didn’t really believe in ADD or ADHD – that it was more a matter of temperament, not a disorder. And indeed, many of the attributes of Artisans (like impulsivity) overlap with ADHD characteristics.

A few years later I shared the psychologist’s statement with our family counselor (whom we visited only as needed). “Hogwash!” was her response. For one thing, she said numerous studies have shown definitive differences in the brains of people with ADHD. No such brain differences are seen among temperament types. In any event, Alan has since been diagnosed with ADD by a psychiatrist.

Meanwhile, our older son Nathan is an INTP – one of the Rational types. Rationals are the techies, engineers, and/or sci-fi “nerds.” We’ve heard it said that all Rationals are on the autism spectrum to some degree. I don’t know how true this is, but certainly there is some overlap; neither Rationals nor people on the spectrum are known for having innate people skills. As I’ve shared in other posts, Nathan was found to be autistic-like by school psychologists, and was diagnosed with Aspergers (or is it schizoid personality disorder?)

Now, on to what turned up in my internet research.

Dr. Barbara Keough is one researcher whose work is frequently referenced. She and her colleagues at UCLA preferred to use a temperament model first proposed by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, with definitions of nine dimensions later put forth by Jan Kristal. This seems to be a framework well-suited for issues concerning child development and family dynamics.

The dimensions defined by Kristal are:

  • Sensory threshold
  • Activity level
  • Intensity
  • Rhythmicity
  • Adaptability
  • Mood
  • Approach/withdrawal
  • Persistence
  • Distractibility

These have been found to cluster into three constellations of temperament:

“Easy” children are typically adaptable, mild or moderate in activity and intensity, positive in mood, and interested in new experiences.

“Difficult” children tend to be intense, low in adaptability, and negative in mood.

“Slow-to-warm-up” children are upset by change, are characteristically reluctant and withdrawing in new situations, and shy with new people, although given time they adapt slowly and well.

The above list was copied from an article by Dr. Keough on the Great Schools website. More description of the nine dimensions can also be found there. Honestly, it’s tempting to copy and paste the whole article into this post! I’ll restrain myself by pasting in just one more excerpt, which is a paragraph about learning disabilities and temperament:

It is important for parents to understand that there is no single temperament profile that characterizes all children with learning disabilities. Like other children, a child with LD has his own unique and individual temperament. This is not to imply that LD and temperament may not overlap, because in many instances there are similarities between the signs of LD and the characteristics of difficult temperaments, especially in traits of distractibility, intensity, and low persistence. Too often, however, temperament characteristics of a child with LD are assumed to be part of the LD itself, rather than an individual variation in behavioral style. This confusion tends to over-emphasize the idea of disability, and overlooks the individuality of a child with LD.  When you can see and interpret a child’s behavior through a temperament “lens” it helps you sort out what are signs of LD and what is temperament.

When I first read about the three constellations of childhood temperament, I was a little puzzled: “Really? All children fit into one of those three categories?” This article, while geared toward early childhood development, gives the answer. It says that only about 65% of children have temperaments that fit into one of those three types. (The other 35% must be more spread out in the statistical results.) The article goes on to discuss the importance of adults being able to recognize their own temperaments and those of the children in their charge. Making adjustments and allowances for the differences can minimize conflicts, misunderstandings, and bad feelings.

This article makes much the same point, stating that parents should try to tailor their parenting styles to the individual needs and temperaments of each child. It cites one study of mothers with children aged 8 to 12. The results showed that “when a mother’s parenting style matched up well with her child’s temperament, the child experienced half as many symptoms of depression and anxiety.” In particular, the degree to which a parent is attuned to a child’s levels of fearfulness, frustration, and self-control may have the greatest impact on the youth’s mental health.

If you are a parent who is now experiencing depression and anxiety because until this moment you’ve had more of a “my way or the highway” style, you may be wondering how to learn more about temperament types. Nurture by Nature, a book I mentioned in the original post, is a very useful guide to the 16 Keirsey temperament types (4 subtypes in each of the four main types). A similar book, which I haven’t read, is Parenting by Temperament by Nancy Harkey.

I’ll close with two links that focus on mental health conditions first, then discuss connections to temperament.

An article on ADHD discusses a preliminary study of kids ages 7-11. The researchers were able to group these children with ADHD into three temperament categories: mild ADHD, surgent ADHD, and irritable ADHD. Those in the mild group had ADHD symptoms, but otherwise their temperaments were like kids who didn’t have ADHD. The surgent ADHD kids were very excitable, with high activity levels. The irritable type had high levels of anger, fear, and sadness, and were hard to soothe.

The researchers found that in the irritable type, two brain regions – the amygdala and the anterior insula – are less in sync than in children of other types. Both of these regions have a role in emotional behavior. The researchers also found that children in the irritable ADHD type were the most likely type to develop another mental health condition, such as mood problems or anxiety.

The second link is from MentalHelp.net, which has a whole series of informative articles on suicide. This one, on the biological factors that contribute to suicidal thoughts, includes a section on temperament. It mentions two temperaments that tend to be displayed by suicidal adolescents and adults. The first is known either as “depressive/withdrawn,” “negativistic/avoidant,” or “high in neuroticism.” People with this temperament have difficulty controlling their negative moods and tend to overreact to stressors. This temperament is also prone to having a history of being abused or having inadequate relationships with caregivers.

The second temperament type found in suicidal people is known as “impulsive/aggressive” or “negativistic/avoidant/antisocial.” They have difficulty controlling their anger, may have a pattern of reckless or irresponsible behavior, and tend to abuse alcohol or other substances. Their tendency to make snap decisions means that they may commit suicide without being particularly depressed or anxious. “Children with this temperament type often have histories of abuse (particularly sexual abuse).”

The article goes on to discuss three factors that influence temperament:

  • the genes that control the regulation of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin
  • the environment – such as how much and what kinds of stress one is exposed to, and how the stress levels match up with one’s innate coping skills
  • the negative responses of caregivers and peers to a child’s difficult temperament. These increase the likelihood of  stress, and influence further personality development and the risk of mental disorders

And so ends my research roundup. Not much of it relates directly to teens and young adults. Some of it is inconclusive, while other points seem pretty obvious.

I’m still confused (but fascinated) about how temperament, social relationships, and mental health intertwine. One thing seems clear: these researchers agree that teachers, caregivers, and parents who take a youngster’s temperament type into account will have better results in the short term and increase the chances of a well-adjusted adult in the long term.









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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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