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Helping Children with a Feisty Temperament

Updated: Jan 30

Have you ever had a child who

  • Cries or tantrums loudly, out of nowhere, and over just about anything!?

  • Has HUGE emotional reactions to seemingly small occurrences?

  • Runs to you with distressing reports about things that are not really that big of a deal?

If so, we have some information and a helpful tool to assist with reducing these behaviors. There are many drivers of challenging behaviors. If adults can isolate the “why” behind the behavior and teach the child what they need to learn, they will inevitably choose the guidance strategy that will reduce these negative actions in the future.

In this blog, you will find:

*The reality is, if the child has always had strong emotional reactions, they might just have been born this way.

The above behavior describes a child I knew well – very well. Me.

From birth, I felt things SO passionately! And, still today (this is why many hire me to lead trainings and delighted participants keep showing up year after year - my enthusiasm!) Imagine being my mother or caregiver though.

Early in our relationship, my husband and I used to have this argument: Does he just have more self-control? Or, do I simply feel things stronger than him (making it more difficult to resist and manage strong impulses)?

He insisted that his fantastic self-regulation skills were the answer. I suspected the intensity of my urges were simply much stronger.

Gratefully, while doing my graduate work at the University of Minnesota on this topic, I found out I was right! (LOVE THAT - haha).

Researchers Chess and Thomas, in the 1970s, were able to isolate nine different traits that describe the natural differences humans can have to the same stimuli (a loud noise, distraction, disappointment, change, etc.). Each of us have our own unique temperament and fall somewhere on a continuum of each trait.

The specific trait that is the culprit here is likely “High intensity of reactions.”

I was simply born with higher “emotional reactivity” and so I literally feel things more fiercely (Exuberance versus contentment, peeved rather than annoyed, furious versus mad). Children and adults with this trait have more activity in the left frontal lobe of their brain. When experiencing much more disruption when upsetting things happen than others with low intensity.

In this interesting and entertaining video, you can see some common differences in temperament, including intensity.

Unfortunately for me, adults in my young life did not realize why I expressed emotions so passionately, see the value in this trait, and/or know what to do to help me thrive. So, they (and I) struggled. Now I know, if adults had taken the time to teach the skills I needed to learn, I could have experienced success anyway. Learning to manage my powerful feelings in a helpful way would not happen until much later, when I had my own young reactive human – my first born – and learned more about this topic during my graduate studies. Research reveals how critical adult responses are in promoting the skills needed and that, no matter what the temperament makeup, the child can succeed in school, relationships, and life.

A child cannot change their temperament. So, if you have felt heightened frustration towards a child with high intensity, wishing they were different, or trying to force better behavior or a less intense reaction, your valuable energy is being wasted. You might as well say:

"Stop being the way you are wired! Stop being yourself!"

The good news? Every child can succeed. But, they will need your help to learn how to manage big feelings. Through our interactions with supportive adults who work to teach them the skills they need to succeed, every child can thrive.

Instead of the unhelpful responses that might come naturally when our exasperation mounts:

  • Help the child learn about how they are wired

  • Have empathy for how difficult it must feel to have such strong reactions

  • Teach them what they need to learn, promoting the skills needed

Children with high intensity are quicker to fill with frustration, fall apart over little things, and burst into a tantrum because that is how they are wired from birth. They do not choose their temperament. Also, there are no universally negative traits. Children with high intensity have a wonderfully passionate gift that helps light up the room. Imagine if every child you care for had a subdued temperament? We gain harmony because of our differences. That being said, children with robust reactions can wreak havoc in group settings.

Having an emotionally reactive temperament is not an excuse for explosive and disruptive behavior. It's just one reason that can fuel fires in group settings. The trick to help a child reduce disruptive behavior? Provide a good fit and give individualized care, matching your expectations with what the child is capable of, and teach them what them what they need to learn. To read resource-filled blog posts to help with other traits and learn more, visit the Temperament Category on this blog.

To build skills in infants and toddlers, it will take a lot of adult demonstration, modeling, and promoting the specific methods. It will take years to understand what they feel, know what they can do when they're feeling big emotions, and use those tools to handle difficult moments.

For children aged 3-8 years with a high intensity temperaments, we can do more specific learning activities that will bolster skills in this area.

*Consider the behavior and what the child need to learn.


IN ACTION: Imagine a child might come to you with “HUGE” problems (and this just might drive you a bit bonkers!) This is especially true when the issue is quite small for you (more likely too if you are low intensity yourself.)

Remember, just because the emotional response is intense, does not inherently make it more important. This can be tough for adults because extreme behavior can breed severe behavior in others in close proximity. It is critical to stay calm and help the child learn to gauge how important the issue really is. I remember a colleague saying, “Raelene, you can’t be intense about every idea! You have to choose what you will ‘die on the sword for”. Yes, even in my 40s I had learning to do! Now, you can actually help our youth learn this important skill much earlier. This is best achieved before the fiery moment is occurs.

Here is an example of a strategy (with a free teaching tool) to teach this important concept to children preschool and up.

How big a deal IS IT?

No matter how intense a child's temperament, they can still learn to manage big emotions. A child with high emotional reactivity needs to learn to evaluate how big of a deal something really is and pinpoint what to do about it.

This activity can be used one on one, during small group, or large group activities to help children analyze the importance of common scenarios they run into, before faced with the “dire” situation.

Start simple and then expand on the learning as life progresses

1) Introduce the concept: “Sometimes things feel like they are HUGE! That we need HELP right away! This tool can help us think about when we need assistance and what we can do about tough moments.” Illustrate what “red”, “yellow”, and “green” mean.


  • Yellow. (Not too big, but still need help. Check in with adult.)

  • Green. (No big deal. I can handle this one!)

2) Get theatrical: Take time to do simple role plays from common scenarios with puppets. Have the puppet come tell the teacher something of mid-importance. “TEACHER – SHE WON’T PLAY WITH ME!”. Act out helping the puppet identify where on the scale (Red – BIG. OH NO. “Emergency!” Yellow – need to “Check in” to see what I could do. To Green – “I have got this!” I can handle this! Keep playing out scenarios and have the children guess

3) Model and demonstrate: As you go about your day, talk about this idea in relationship to your experience and your heightened emotions.

“OH NO, I am not ready yet and it is time to go outside… How big of a big deal is that? Oh – probably just green. I have got this! I can breathe, and turn up the speed dial now to get ready to go…”

"There is so much activity, I am starting to feel like everyone needs to be quiet. This is barely a yello. I know what to do! I am going to take a calm-down break to rest."

4) Prompt the child: Once children start to internalize this idea, ask the child to evaluate their own difficult moment. They run over to report a distressing ordeal. “OH! This feels like it is RED! But, is it? Hum. What do you think?” Walk over to the posted chart and ask: “Red – yellow – green? I wonder where it falls.” Help them decide how big of a deal the scenario is. “It sounds like you're really frustrated! How big a deal is it? Is it huge where you need help right now or do you think you can manage it? Is it a medium deal you want to check in about? Or is it a small deal where we just need to breathe and move on?”

With your support and ongoing teaching, they will get better at gauging what they are feeling and what type of assistance they may need (if any.) And, they will learn they can come to you when they need to check in. Through interaction with you, they will learn that, though their whole body says this is a big deal, sometimes it really isn't.

With your assistance, they will gain the ability to feel strong emotions, identify appropriate ways to express them, and do what's most appropriate. What's more, this skill will help them to maintain relationships and increase the likelihood that they will succeed in school and in life. You will be providing the assistance they need to really thrive not only in your care, but in other environments.

To learn more and gain more tips and tools, check out the valuable resources below

To view a list of currently offered live webinars and self-paced learning opportunities, visit



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