Annual Report 2005‚Äď06

A comparison of children's temperament and adjustment across 20 years

(Taken from Family Matters, edition 72, "A comparison of children's temperament and adjustment across 20 years" by Diana Smart and Ann Sanson.)

This article draws on data on children's temperament style and socio-emotional wellbeing from the Australian Temperament Project and Growing Up in Australia to investigate similarities and differences between children growing up in the 1980s and 2000s.

Three main questions were investigated: How do Australian Temperament Project and Growing Up in Australia children compare on temperament? Have levels of children's behavioural and socio-emotional adjustment changed between the 1980s and 2000s? Are the relationships between temperament and behavioural and socio-emotional adjustment in the Growing Up in Australia cohort similar to those in the Australian Temperament Project cohort?

While child characteristics such as temperament style may predispose children to develop behavioural or socio-emotional problems, environmental factors (particularly the family context and broader societal conditions) play a considerable role as well. There have been many changes in family life and prevailing economic circumstances in Australia during the past 20 years. Our hypothesis was that, despite the socio-cultural changes that have occurred, the same developmental processes that link temperament with behavioural and emotional adjustment would be evident.

The data used come from the fourth Australian Temperament Project survey wave undertaken in 1986, when the children were between 44 and 57 months of age, the average age being 47.5 months. The Australian Temperament Project cohort are compared with the Growing Up in Australia child cohort who were aged between 51 and 67 months, with an average age of 56.9 months. In the statistical analyses undertaken, child age was included as a covariate to control for the effects of this difference between the two cohorts.

Both studies used an abridged form of the Short Temperament Scale for Children to measure: approach-sociability - how comfortable the child is in new situations or with unfamiliar children or adults; reactivitym - how intense and volatile the child is; and persistence - the child's capacity to see tasks through to completion. High scores reflect high sociability, high reactivity and high persistence.

The studies employed measures based on the Rutter Child Behaviour Questionnaire to measure behavioural and socio-emotional adjustment. Common subsets of questions were used for comparison on hyperactivity, anxiety, peer problems and pro-social behaviour. High scores reflect high levels of each of these.

Temperament

Comparisons of the cohorts revealed significant differences on two of the three aspects of temperament style (see Figure 18). For approach-sociability, while both groups were on average between 'usually' and 'frequently' sociable and approaching, Growing Up in Australia children tended to be more outgoing, with a medium effect size. For reactivity, both groups were between 'rarely' and 'usually not' reactive, but Australian Temperament Project children tended to be more intense and volatile. No significant difference was found for the other aspect of temperament style, persistence.

Figure 18 - Temperament

Adjustment

Regarding children's behavioural and socio-emotional adjustment, differences were found on anxiety (Growing Up in Australia children reported fewer problems such as worrying, being fearful or miserable), peer problems (parents reported that Growing Up in Australia children were less likely to have problems such as not being liked, being a loner), and pro-social behaviour (parents reported that Growing Up in Australia children were more likely to show behaviours such as sharing and being considerate) (Figure 19). Interestingly, there were no significant differences on aggression and hyperactivity. Hence the differences that emerged seemed to reflect children's capacities to interact comfortably and well in social situations.

Figure 19 - Adjustment

Relationship between temperament and adjustment

Multiple regression analysis was used to identify significant contributors to child behaviour and adjustment, with family demographic factors and child age entered at the first step to control for their effects, and the three temperament dimensions - reactivity, persistence, approach-sociability - entered at the second step. All in all, very similar connections between temperament and behavioural and socio-emotional adjustment emerged across both studies. While there were several differences between the cohorts in the type of family demographic factors that had an impact on children's outcomes, generally these connections were weak and accounted for very little variance. Temperament style was confirmed as a salient predictor especially for hyperactivity, aggression and pro-social behaviour in both cohorts, with the temperament traits of greatest importance being reactivity and persistence.

In conclusion, there appear to have been small but significant shifts in Australian children's temperament over the past 20 years, as assessed by parents. These were all in the direction of children of the 2000s being a little 'easier' in temperament style - less irritable and reactive and also more outgoing and sociable. However, the size of these differences was small, and it is probably more appropriate to emphasise the overall similarity in temperamental traits across the cohorts, which is to be expected given temperament's constitutional basis.

The differences between the cohorts on adjustment were again in the direction of Growing Up in Australia children faring slightly better than Australian Temperament Project children. These findings tend to allay concerns that today's children are having difficulty coping with new family contexts, such as the trend for more mothers of young children to return to work, the greater utilisation of child care, and the higher levels of hardship, stress and isolation reportedly experienced by young families.

Finally, these findings confirm that children's temperament style "matters" for their development and wellbeing. The trends emerging from the two studies were remarkably similar in terms of the amount of variance explained and the temperament dimensions that were most salient. Hence there was consistency in the way temperament impacted on adjustment among children separated by a 20-year time span, although sociability appeared to play a slightly larger role among children of the 2000s.

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