Personality Development in Childhood: Temperament and Attachment.

Personality Development in Childhood

One of the major tasks of childhood is to consolidate a personality. A personality, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) loosely “refers to the enduring characteristics and behavior that comprise a person’s unique adjustment to life, including major traits, interests, drives, values, self-concept, abilities, and emotional patterns.” Judging from this long description, consolidating a personality is no simple task. It is something children (and adults!) develop over time as they grow in psychological and physical maturity.

In fact, researchers have found that although personalities start to emerge from a young age, they don’t fully stabilize until one reaches their late 20s.

Personality is also impacted by countless numbers of biological, developmental, familial, and cultural factors. Although a personality does change throughout one’s life, researchers point to early developmental factors as particularly influential for how a child’s personality will develop and mature later on in life.  This article will focus on two factors that are particularly important in childhood: Temperament and Attachment. There will be a follow-up article discussing abnormal personality development and possible interventions and treatments that may be of assistance.


As parents and caregivers, we can often see how children are born with ‘default settings.’ Parents might notice that one child is easy to calm and mellow, while other children seem to be highly reactive and sensitive. Temperament is a child’s in-built way of reacting to and approaching the world. A child’s temperament can be observed from birth, and in some cases, can be observed prenatally. For example, researchers have found that differences in fetal heart rate at up to 36-week gestation can predict important behavioral differences when the child is born, with high heart rates predicting less regular sleeping and feeding behaviors, as well as predicting increased difficulty adapting to new environments and people. In childhood, temperament is thought to influence various domains of a child’s life, including their:

  • Motor activity and physical energy
  • Predictability of sleeping and eating
  • Ability to adjust to change or transition
  • Ability to focus or concentrate
  • Sensitivity to physical stimuli (sounds, lights, etc…)
  • Persistence in continuing tasks and frustration tolerance
  • Intensity of emotional expression
  • Responsiveness to new people and environments
  • Mood and tendency to react positively or negatively to the world.

It is important to note that temperament is NOT personality. Just because it is the ‘default setting’ of a child does not mean that is the child’s ‘true self,’ nor does it imply that the child is ‘stuck’ this way. Studies have shown that temperament can be modified through environmental factors, such as attachment, parenting styles, school and peer environment, and interventions such as therapy.


Another influence on childhood personality development is attachment. Attachment is an instinct present in almost all infants to seek safety and security from one’s primary caregivers. Just as how parents learn the ins and outs of their new child, children are also learning the ins and outs of their parents. They soon learn what they need to do to get attention from their primary caregivers, what needs to happen for them to get their needs met, what they need to do to feel safe, and how to behave in order to be praised or avoid punishment from parents. These lessons begin from day one of infancy and are continually learned and re-learned throughout childhood into adulthood. These lessons that the child takes in often manifest in specific patterns of beliefs about self, others, and the world (ex: The world is safe; I can trust others; I am a good person), as well as patterns of behavior (ex: smiling receives positive attention, Learning to seek out parents when distressed). Psychologists often call these patterns one’s ‘attachment style,’ which is the distinct style a child learns to navigate the world and interpersonal relationships. One’s attachment style has often been found to influence various parts of personality, including emotion regulation and frustration tolerance, interpersonal skills, self-esteem, and self-competence. Although attachment can manifest differently in each child, there are four distinct attachment styles that children (and adults) tend to manifest:

  • Secure Attachment: Children raised with a secure attachment style are brought up feeling safe, secure, and stable. They are better equipped to have healthy boundaries with others and be able to be intimate and connected to others.
  • Anxious Attachment: Children with Anxious attachment styles were brought up unsure about whether their needs will be met or as a result of inconsistent parenting. This leads to insecurity about relationships and come manifest in feelings of ‘clinginess’ or a fear of abandonment.
  • Avoidant Attachment: Children with avoidant (also called ambivalent) attachment style were raised with little emotional support from their primary caregivers. It leads to children feeling the need to ‘be on their own’ and being guarded against feelings of intimacy.
  • Disorganized Attachment: This attachment style is very rare and usually a sign of extreme unpredictability that leaves the child in a regular state of fear and anxiety. Children exposed to long-term deprivation, invalidation, trauma, and other adverse experiences can develop a style where they fluctuate between wanting closeness, but then push others away. This style is also associated with difficulty regulating emotions and an unstable sense of self.

Just like with temperament, attachment is something that is responsive and modified by parenting relationships with the child. For example, parents and caregivers can do their best to cultivate a secure attachment style by being observant and responsive to their child’s needs, learning effectively soothing techniques for their child’s distress, and providing a sense of safety for their child to explore the world around them. Additionally, various psychotherapies for children, parents, and families exist to help promote secure attachment styles in children.

Lastly, it is important to note that these are only two influences on personality development in childhood. One must remember that personality development is a complex process, and several other factors such as cultural context, parenting style, school and neighborhood environment, and peer relationships also play significant relationships.   


American Psychological Association’s Definition of Personality: Personality (

Fetal Heart-Rate Study- Here


Personality part 2: Personality disorders, risk fa...