From the moment our babies are born, we see their unique personalities peeping through. Some infants already have distinct ways of engaging with you and their world. Maybe they are super chill and easy-going, or high-strung and easily distressed. It is usually easy to see little hints about your child’s personality from a very young age.
I noticed that she loved her routines and structure from the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital. Without parental influence, she would wake at precise times, and I mean “on the dot,” of 11 pm, 2 am, and 5 am every day for her overnight feeds. And to this day, she still loves to have a clear routine. It helps her feel safe as she knows what to expect. This can sometimes show up in her personality as being rigid or inflexible or liking to be in charge, so things go according to her need for structure.
The primary view in psychology is that humans have inbuilt tendencies for particular personality traits. This is influenced by genetics, but life experience can also shape and mold our temperament too.1, 2 This is something you might have heard called nature versus nurture. So, although our children might have hardwired personalities, we as parents can also have some influence over their personality.
Tips for Developing Your Child’s Personality for the Better
We all want our children to be happy and well adjusted. So here are some tips to support your child’s personality in positive ways:
1. Avoid labeling them.
When we use words like “shy,” “bossy,” or even “good boy or girl,” it can unintentionally create a role that starts to shape their personality. If they hear themselves being described as shy, they can begin to live up to this expectation. The words we use about our children are so powerful. Try to avoid labeling your child and focus on labeling the behavior instead.
2. Allow them opportunities for free play.
Unstructured time can feel a bit daunting for parents. They might feel pressure as no measurable outcome or goal is being met or progress is being made. However, free play lets children blossom. They develop physically and emotionally as they play out their internal world. It helps them develop empathy, settle a conflict, practice different roles, flex their imagination, and also learn about problem-solving.
3. Teach them to fight fair.
Children need to learn how to manage conflict to help them navigate the world respectfully. Being able to settle disputes also supports them in having more mutually beneficial and positive relationships. They learn to be respectful in hearing others’ opinions and needs, and they learn to develop boundaries around their own needs. Help them manage conflict by showing them how to apologize genuinely, teach them how to actively listen, and show them about taking turns to speak or respectfully disagree with things.
4. Don’t do it all for them.
When we rush to fix problems for our kids, they don’t learn independence or how to problem-solve. It’s okay for kids to struggle (even if it makes us feel uncomfortable). They learn to be resilient and continue pursuing a goal despite setbacks or challenges.
5. Model the behavior you want to see.
If you want your child to be kind and use their manners or show respect, you need to demonstrate what this looks like. This needs to be shown in how you treat your child and other people.
6. Don’t rush their feelings.
No parent wants to see our kids distressed. But when we rush to fix their feelings or say things like, “It’s not that bad” or “You will be okay,” we accidentally invalidate their feeling or show that we don’t think their problems are important to us. We also teach them that feelings are something to rush through or avoid. To be resilient, kind to others, and empathic, children need to understand their feelings and manage them accordingly. Allow them to experience the feeling and focus on coping rather than avoiding the emotion.
7. Be a good listener.
Teach them the skills to be good listeners by demonstrating good non-verbal skills—things like making eye contact, having an open posture, using tone of voice, etc. But also teach them how to ask questions to show interest or summarize what they heard to show they listened.
8. Delay gratification.
When we can delay a current reward for some greater reward in the future, it is called being able to delay gratification. This skill is associated with better educational achievement, higher socioeconomic status, more positive relationships, and less drug and alcohol abuse in later life.3 You can teach them how to delay gratification by doing things they need to wait for to receive a reward, like baking a cake, growing a veggie patch, or putting a puzzle together.
9. Emotional literacy.
Children who understand their emotions are better able to recognize emotions in others (this is called empathy).4 Use lots of different words to describe their feelings. For example, anger can range from irritation to rage. The more words you use to describe your own and their feelings will help them learn how to better describe and understand emotions. It’s also about noting the emotions you see in them and sharing your insights. This is because children aren’t born knowing about their emotions. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed you look sad right now,” or, “I wonder if you are feeling a bit frustrated?”
10. Managing big feelings.
Emotional literacy doesn’t just help kids develop empathy; it also helps them manage their big feelings. When they can do this, they are also less likely to lash out or impact others when they experience distress (leading to more positive and better-quality relationships, a better ability to focus on and complete essential tasks, and increased resilience). When a child can name their feeling, they can then better match those feeling with a coping strategy. So, help them find ways to cope with different emotions in healthy ways. For example, if your child is angry, you might give them some playdough to squish, have them take deep breaths, write down how they feel, do some star jumps, or show them how to share their distress and talk it through in a healthy way (“I felt mad when you broke my toy because now I can’t play with it.”).
11. Be inclusive.
Your child will learn from you how to treat others. If you want your child to be inclusive, try to think about the language you use to describe others in front of your child (they are always listening). Also, read lots of books about different cultures, abilities, religions, or different experiences to get insight into how other people live and can then be more open and accepting to people who might initially feel “different” from them.
12. Allow them to be responsible for some activities of daily living.
This includes things like brushing their teeth, picking their clothes, helping tidy their bedroom, etc. The tasks need to be appropriate for their developmental level and skill. But being responsible for these kinds of things will improve their self-esteem and encourage independence.
13. Be gentle when they make mistakes.
Our children can’t excel at everything. At times they might fall short of our expectations of them. It’s okay to express disappointment in their behavior choices because we still need the opportunity to try and correct and guide them moving forward. However, avoid shaming and blaming the child (remember to name the behavior and not your child as problematic). Each child has unique abilities. We can create low self-esteem and a lack of confidence if we don’t appreciate their individual strengths/challenges.
14. Try not to compare.
For similar reasons, we need to be gentle when they make mistakes. We should avoid comparing our children to either their siblings, us, or even other people in their life. Comparing doesn’t help a child improve or become a better person. It just makes them feel ashamed and not good enough, which is damaging to their personality and self-esteem.
15. Give back!
Giving to others and sharing doesn’t have to involve money or spending anything, but it shows children how to notice and care for others. Spend time as a family creating letters for loved ones who are unwell, donating old towels or blankets to an animal shelter, opening doors for people, or helping people pack their groceries if you see them struggling.
16. Limit screen time.
Too much screen time can influence emotional and social development as children spend more time on the computer/phone than interacting with peers. It makes it hard to influence positive personality development if they don’t have the opportunity to engage with people around them. So, try and limit screen time where possible.
17. Set clear boundaries.
If you can show your child what having a firm boundary looks like, they will be better able to respect other people’s boundaries and protect themselves by keeping their own personal boundaries. This means if you set a rule or expectation and a consequence, you need to follow through every time. When kids know what to expect, they are also more likely to feel safe and secure, which helps them be confident.
18. Gratitude attitude.
Practicing gratitude, or reflecting on challenges and still seeing something positive that you are grateful for, can assist in resilience and general mental well-being and mood. This is because the mind learns to look for positives, and this, in turn, influences how you feel. So, help your child practice by sharing daily gratitude, use car rides to talk through things you are grateful for, and in moments of stress, help them look for positives.
19. Don’t intervene socially.
If your child is in danger, by all means, swoop in. But in general, children need to be able to navigate their own social challenges. We can support them and encourage them or give them strategies. But in general, we need to leave the “doing” up to them (except in instances of threat or danger). This helps children feel confident in navigating social situations and allows them to practice setting boundaries, and they learn about good communication and conflict resolution skills.
20. Fill their cup.
Children have five cups that need to be filled: freedom, mastery/self-worth, connection, fun, and safety/survival.5 When these cups are not filled, children can resort to challenging behaviors to get their needs met, often “emptying” another person’s cup in the process. So, filling these cups will allow them to engage more meaningfully with others and in play, freeing them to do activities that support the positive development of your child’s personality.
Although these tips are a great place to start, remember that your child is unique. Each child will differ in their personality and temperament, even siblings. The healthy development of a child’s personality is supported by a parent who is attuned and sensitive to their child’s unique strengths, challenges, and needs.