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(p. 33) Resilience and coping: the role of individual temperament 

(p. 33) Resilience and coping: the role of individual temperament
(p. 33) Resilience and coping: the role of individual temperament

Margot Prior

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date: 03 August 2020

Scientists and the public alike have long been fascinated by observations of notable coping skills in adults and children subjected to extreme stress and trauma. We wonder whether, if we understood the individual, person-centred characteristics and the mechanisms of coping in adverse circumstances, we might find ways to increase the adaptive skills of humanity in general. The developmental and clinical research of childhood and adolescence has gradually taken up the challenge of trying to understand better why and how some children cope well in stressful circumstances. Over the past two decades particularly, a substantial literature has become available (e.g. Garmezy and Rutter 1983; Masten et al. 1990; Radke-Yarrow et al. 1990; LaGreca et al. 1992; Haggerty et al. 1994).

Understanding of resilience or coping requires assessment of multiple facets of competence and adjustment, and multiple attributes of the person and the environment. This chapter is more narrowly focused on individual difference characteristics which contribute to coping; that is, the temperamental features of children which assist them to adapt successfully even in the face of serious threats to their well-being. There is evidence that stable temperamental or personality characteristics of the individual moderate the ability to cope (e.g. Werner and Smith 1982; Garmezy and Rutter 1983; Parkes 1984; Hetherington 1989; Smith and Prior 1995) in seeming to protect an individual from being overwhelmed, or in providing some intrinsic strengths of character which generate adaptive responses. The relationships between temperament and coping have been explored in a variety of paediatric risk conditions including family disadvantage, and parental disruption; chronic illness; handicap (Wallander and Varni 1992); and life trauma (Garrison 1992).

The chapter will begin with definitions of the key concepts involved in this topic, then provide some examples from the literature, of the individual differences which facilitate coping, both in and of themselves, and in interaction with other influences. The major substance of the chapter will be drawn from two longitudinal studies of temperament and development which illustrate coping across developmental periods, and provide some conclusions about the important attributes which facilitate children’s adjustment. (p. 34)

Coping and stress resilience

The literature abounds with diverse definitions of terms such as coping, stress resilience, vulnerability, adaptation, and so on, all of which are relevant to this topic. The framework for the chapter is consistent with the work of major protagonists in studies of coping. Frydenberg (1997) has discussed the move, over time, from deficit to competence models in research on coping, and the development from undue emphasis on stress research to greater focus on coping research. Current definitions of coping include the multidimensional construct of Lazarus (1991), mostly focused on adults; and that pertinent to adolescence of Frydenberg and Lewis (1993), both of which have cognition-based theoretical foundations. Lazarus and Folkman (1984, p. 1410) define coping as ‘constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person’. A central construct in this definition, that of cognitive appraisal (of demands, or threat), has been relatively little researched for children within a stress resilience framework, although Masten et al. (1988) have emphasized the role of cognitive ability in successful coping. Frydenberg (1997) points out that most theory and research has been adult based and that the particular characteristics of children and adolescents which influence coping, including their relatively greater dependence on others in their environment, require their own emphasis. Compas (1987), who discusses coping as ‘effortful responses to stress’, has reviewed child and adolescent coping in a range of stressful situations, and identified a number of important mechanisms. These include the importance of social bonds and relationships, interpersonal, cognitive problem-solving skills, and personality styles.

Stress resilience is clearly related to coping but not isomorphic with it. Resilience in children in a stressful environment encompasses behaviours and processes involved in the capacity to maintain positive adaptation and healthy functioning in a challenging or unhealthy context, or, the ability to maintain competence or mastery of life under stress (Garmezy 1981). Most empirical research has defined resilience operationally, that is, in terms of the absence of a critical level of behavioural maladjustment, or the presence of at least average measurable social competencies (Masten et al. 1988). Inherent in the concept of resilience is the notion of an ability to maintain functioning, to ‘recover’ or remain buoyant despite misfortune. This, of course, sounds very much like what we mean by coping.

Risk and protective factors related to resilience and coping in children

Risk factors are those which threaten the well-being of the child and his/her capacity for continuing adaptive development. Risk factors which have been studied include parental conflict, separation and divorce, chronic illness in child or parent; poverty and social disadvantage; race; an environment of war; and the like. Two classes of protective factors have been studied: intrinsic or intrapersonal factors believed to be constitutional in large part, such as personality, temperament, and intelligence; and (p. 35) extrinsic or environmental influences such as a caring family, the availability of social supports, or caring mentors, good school experiences, and strong attachments. And of course the interaction of these factors has been demonstrated in their contributions to coping and resilience (Garmezy and Rutter 1983; Rutter 1990).

This chapter will focus on one of the intrinsic factors related to coping, that is, temperament. Temperament, or behavioural style, is widely acknowledged to contribute to a child’s ability to withstand stress, although the processes and mechanisms of its influence remain hypothetical (Rutter 1987). It has been conceptualized as a risk, protective, and resilience factor in different studies.

What is temperament?

The definition of temperament has been controversial amongst researchers in this field (Goldsmith et al. 1987), despite the fact that the average person will be able to describe and use this construct with little hesitation. It is, however, accepted that temperament refers to observable, stable, individual characteristics of behavioural style. These characteristics, or dispositions, are present from early in life; they are at least in part biologically driven and genetic in origin; and they persist over time and across situations. They are the foundations of what is later called personality (Prior 1992).

Researchers vary in the extent to which they see temperament as biologically driven and stable, versus a more flexible individual difference factor which is modified by environmental interaction. A biopsycho-social model, in which nature and nurture and experience interact appears a reasonable way of conceptualizing temperament. It affects the way children customarily respond to events and people in their world, and this in turn affects the way people respond to them. It has also been suggested that individuals may seek and select environments which fit comfortably with their own dispositions, so called ‘niche picking’ (Super and Harkness 1986). This may itself function as a coping response.

Measurement of temperament

The measurement of temperament has posed considerable challenge since it is something that is inferred from observed behavioural reactions and patterns over time. A number of questionnaires and child temperament scales have been developed which rely on ratings of behavioural style from people who know a child well. The best of these measures are based on clear behavioural descriptors which theoretically relate to a temperament factor or dimension. For example, asking a parent to rate the child on an item such as ‘my child accepts a new baby-sitter without fuss’ represents an item in a factor called ‘adaptability’. Various age-appropriate scales are available for the measurement of temperament from infancy to adulthood (Lerner et al. 1983; Fullard et al. 1984; Sanson et al. 1994; McClowry 1995). Temperament has been rated on such scales in various studies, by parents, teachers, and by the children themselves (e.g. Prior et al. 1998). Thus, different informants can describe the way the child seems to them. There is reasonable agreement on the temperament of a particular child across informants if the same measure is used, but the fact that there are differences should (p. 36) not surprise us since contexts for behaviour may elicit variations in dispositional expressions. Moreover, interactions with other people are reciprocally influenced, providing further variation in the expression of temperament.

The structure of temperament

Descriptions of many and various dimensions of temperament are available, although it is possible to extract core features which are prominent in most temperament research (Bates 1989a; Prior 1992). Thomas and Chess (1977), whose influence in the field, developing from their work in the US from the 1960s onwards, has been substantial, studied nine dimensions of temperament in infants and young children. These were activity level, prevailing mood, intensity of response, threshold to respond, approach/withdrawal to new stimuli, persistence, adaptability over time to experience, rhythmicity or regularity of biological functions, and distractibility or soothability.

More global dimensions are exemplified in the temperament model of Buss and Plomin (1984) who incorporate sociability, emotionality (both positive and negative), and activity in their model. Time and space do not allow for in depth discussion of temperament in this chapter; for more detail the reader is referred to Prior (1992) for review, and a window into the large literature in this area.

For the purposes of this discussion it is useful to focus on particular aspects of temperament which are of significance in studies of coping in childhood and adolescence. Studies of the relationships between temperament and psychosocial outcomes such as adjustment and maladjustment, coping, resilience, and the like, have generally used clusters or related groups of temperament factors, rather than single dimensions. The best known of these clusters is the Thomas and Chess (1977) ‘easy–difficult temperament’ categorization. This refers to scores on the temperament factors of mood, adaptability, approach, intensity and rhythmicity. Scores from ratings on these factors added together make up a composite score which is used to classify the child into ‘difficult’, ‘easy’, ‘slow to warm up’, and ‘intermediate’ temperament categories. The difficult child is characterized by low approach and adaptability, negative mood, high intensity, and low rhythmicity. The easy child has scores at the opposite end of these factors, and is sociable, adaptable, positive in mood, regular, and non-intense. The two types of temperament and their associations with psychosocial adjustment have been extensively researched (see, e.g., Kohnstamm et al. 1989).

Other researchers have adapted this construct into a dimensional rather than a categorical one. For example, in the Australian Temperament Project (Prior et al. 1989) (see below for details of this research), children can occupy a place on a continuous dimension from the most easy to the most difficult in temperament, based on their combined scores on the dimensions of adaptability, persistence, approach, and intensity. The exact content of the easy–difficult scale varies according to the age of the child (infancy, toddlerhood, pre-school age, middle childhood, etc.) since the structure of temperament changes somewhat with the developmental stage of the child and measures need to take account of this (Sanson et al. 1994).

Another salient and more global temperament construct with clear associations to psychosocial outcomes has been called ‘self-regulation’. This refers to the capacity (p. 37) of the child to manage attentional resources adaptively, and to regulate emotional reactivity. Children with well developed self-regulatory characteristics have been shown to be at less risk for maladjustment (Rothbart and Posner 1985; Bates 1989b; Kyrios and Prior 1990). This kind of temperament is similar in nature to temperamental adaptability or flexibility (the ability to cope with new experiences, to deal with frustration, etc.) which features in many studies of the relationships between temperament and adjustment (e.g. Maziade 1989; Prior et al. 1993; Lengua and Sandler 1996). It also bears some relationship conceptually to Buss and Plomin’s (1984) broad factor of ‘emotionality’, the negative pole of which also features in most concepts of difficult temperament and has clear associations with psychosocial health.

Some recent explorations of temperament have attempted to find physiological indicators such as heart rate (Kagan et al. 1988) which relate to temperament. Kagan’s group has identified a cluster of factors which they term ‘shy-inhibited’ temperament, and have shown that heart rate reactivity reflects this construct to some extent. Other research has indicated associations between vagal tone and ‘sociability’ of temperament (Fox and Stifter 1989).

In addition to the use of rating scales or questionnaires, there are observational measures of temperament in which specific behavioural reactions are observed over time by trained observers. This can be done both naturalistically and in structured settings (Bates and Bayles 1984; Rothbart and Goldsmith 1985; Matheny et al. 1987). There is a moderate level of agreement between observational and questionnaire measures of temperament (Prior 1992), particularly when similar factors and contexts are the basis for measurement.

Laboratory measures of temperament have also been reported. This generally involves presenting the child with particular stimuli or experiences that are pertinent to specific temperament factors believed to underlie the responses, for example, to novel stimuli, or to frustration. Correlations between questionnaire- and laboratory-based measures are modest (Rothbart and Goldsmith 1985; Matheny et al. 1987; also see Bates 1989a for a review of these aspects of temperament).

Although there is continuing debate on the structure and measurement of temperament, the construct itself has impressive validity. It shows stability over time (Pedlow et al. 1993); many of its features show clear and persisting relationships with a child’s longer term adjustment (Keenan and Shaw 1994; Tremblay et al. 1994; Prior et al. 1998); and as we shall see, it shows substantial and predictable associations with coping strategies in challenging situations.

Temperament and coping in situations of family conflict

A salient example of the influence of temperament on coping with adversity comes from the work of Hetherington and colleagues (Hetherington 1989, 1991). They have studied the factors which influence children’s ability to cope with the stress of the separation, divorce, and remarriage of their parents. They have compared children with easy and difficult temperaments in their studies, and documented the interactions between other characteristics of the child such as sex and age, and characteristics of the family situation such as parental behaviour, and social support, which contribute to coping vs. (p. 38) maladjustment in the children. Their analyses are driven by a transactional model where the influences of these variables are bidirectional between parents and children (Werner 1985). The temperament of the child affects not only the child’s behaviour and adjustment, but influences the behaviour of parents and others towards the child, in an ongoing series of interactions. Rutter (1987) has shown how children with adverse temperamental characteristics are more likely to attract negative feelings and behaviour from their parents, thus escalating risk for a poor outcome.

In the Hetherington studies, children with difficult temperamental characteristics, especially boys, showed more negative reactions and hostility towards their divorced mothers. With remarriage, sex differences were again noted, with boys’ negative behaviour towards their stepfathers decreasing over time, while for girls, temperament type did not seem to affect their capacity to cope with a new stepfather. These reactions were also affected by the degree of involvement, or perhaps perceived ‘intrusion’ of the stepfather in the reformed family.

The significant influence of degrees of stress and protective factors emerged in fine grained analyses of the children’s responses. High stress along with low levels of protective factors, as seen in a combination of low income, parental depression, anxiety, conflict, or alcohol use, and poor social relationships outside the family, were associated with poor coping by children, regardless of whether they had easy or difficult temperaments. Nevertheless, poor adjustment was more marked for the difficult children. However, temperamentally easy girls were more socially competent and well adapted under moderately stressful conditions than when under high or low levels of stress. This effect was not found for boys. Coping was also better if the stresses were distributed across time rather than occurring together. Such findings support the contention by Rutter (1987) and others that stress inoculation effects can occur when there is a moderate amount of stress, in situations where the child gains experience in coping, thus strengthening his/her resources for future challenges. Hetherington (1991) cautions that her studies are not representative since they involved a limited sample of white middle class families and therefore conclusions are tentative. Nevertheless the findings well illustrate the complex relationships between the child’s temperament and gender, the ability to cope with a major disruption to life, and particular family and social influences which mediate successful coping. The vulnerability of boys with difficult temperaments when their original family breaks down is a noteworthy finding.

A recent study by Lengua and Sandler (1996) of adjustment to divorce of 8–12 year old children provides a further example of the influence of temperament, this time the factor of self-regulation. Self-regulation as conceptualized by Rothbart (1989a, b) involves the modulation of emotional arousal, attentional capacities, and approach/avoidance tendencies (see also Eisenberg and Fabes 1992). It is claimed to be based strongly on individual biological characteristics. The negative side of self-regulation also overlaps with ‘undercontrolled’ behaviour which can translate into symptoms of undercontrolled, or acting out symptoms. These characterize externalizing behavioural disorders such as Conduct Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Children with good capacities to self-regulate are likely to be able to cope with stress and adversity in more constructive, flexible, adaptive, and sustained ways. Lengua and Sandler (1996) used mothers’ reports of their children’s regulatory capacities on the temperament measures of Windle and Lerner (1986), focusing particularly on (p. 39) persistence and distractibility, approach–withdrawal, and flexibility–rigidity. Their aim was to assess the relationships between temperament and coping in this at-risk group of children. Findings indicated that higher levels of flexible self-regulation assisted children to cope actively and adaptively with family stressors. Children who were poor in approach–flexibility and tried to cope by avoiding the problems were more likely to develop anxiety and conduct problems. However, the task orientation (persistence and distractibility) aspect of self-regulation was not related to coping capacity in this study. In general the results suggested that the temperament factor of self-regulation, particularly the approach–flexibility aspects, can contribute positively to some coping strategies. However, as in so many other studies, there were significant interaction effects with gender, age, and type of outcome measured. The literature on coping and its relationship to temperament, in family separation and divorce, illustrates both the significant effects that children’s behavioural style has on their reactions to this stress, and the complex and multivariate nature of the many intrinsic and extrinsic influences on how children adjust.

Studies of stress and resilience from the Island of Kaui

The island of Kauai is part of the Hawaiian chain of islands. Its population has very mixed origins from both western and eastern parts of the world providing a rich cultural mix of Japanese, Philippino, Hawaiian, and other groups. In 1955 a multidisciplinary study of a birth cohort was begun which has provided valuable insights into the development of children in conditions of hardship (Werner and Smith 1982, 1989). At the time the study began, the economy of the island was rather depressed, with low pay and high unemployment. However, major social and economic changes occurred in the 1960s with population expansion and rapid economic growth. Thus the children in this study grew to maturity in a challenging context. About half of the children in the Kauai research grew up in poverty, with unskilled or semi-skilled fathers, and mothers with low levels of education. The study was a comprehensive one covering birth history and early biological and psychosocial development across many domains in the first two years of life. Temperament, including activity level, social responsiveness, and ease of handling was rated by mothers in the first year of life. A follow-up occurred 10 years later with retrospective reports of the child’s development collected, and assessments of current learning progress and abilities obtained via teacher ratings and formal assessment. The cohort was followed up again at the age of 18 years, and most recently in adulthood at age 31–32.

The extent of threats to the well-being of these children can be gauged from the fact that of the 1000 live births, 135 had died, or were suffering from physical, social, or intellectual problems by the age of 2 years. In the longer term, about one in three of these children developed behavioural and/or learning difficulties by age 10, and by age 18, 10 per cent had mental health problems and 20 per cent had shown delinquent behaviour.

Such developmental difficulties were strongly associated with family problems and poor child-rearing conditions; boys were more vulnerable to such disadvantage than girls, especially if they had suffered early biological stress.

(p. 40) The focus of the study most pertinent to an examination of temperament and resilience or coping concerns the developmental trajectories of children selected from the study as particularly at risk. Werner and Smith’s classic (1982) book Vulnerable but Invincible gives a full picture of this significant story. Werner and Smith investigated vulnerability as ‘susceptibility to negative developmental outcomes after exposure to perinatal stress, poverty, parental psychopathology, and disruption of their family unit’ (1989, p. 157). They looked for the roots of successful coping in such conditions, as evidenced by a sense of competence and control in the children.

The group of interest for this chapter is the ‘resilient’ one of 72 children (30 boys, 42 girls), who comprised one out of every three in the cohort who had had to contend with perinatal stress, and the kinds of family adversity noted above, but who emerged as successful, competent, and caring individuals. Werner and Smith compared and contrasted the intrapersonal and environmental characteristics of these resilient individuals with those at similar risk, who coped poorly. One biological resilience factor was that this group suffered few serious illnesses in childhood and adolescence, and were able to recover quickly. Temperamentally, these children were characterized by engaging qualities which could buffer them against stress. As infants they had been active, affectionate, good natured, and easy to manage. They had fewer sleeping and eating problems. In their second year of life, professionals in the study described them as alert, independent, curious, and sociable. Their communicative and self-help skills were also well developed by comparison with the children who later developed difficulties. As the resilient children developed they elicited positive reactions from family and from those in the wider world, including their relatives, teachers, and other ‘mentoring’ adults.

At school, the teachers reported their success with peers and their ability to focus on academic tasks; and, particularly amongst the girls, their good reasoning capacities and reading skills. The resilient group tended to have many interests, activities, and hobbies which gave them a sense of pride and self-esteem. Some of them assumed responsibility for siblings, worked part time, and coped at home when a parent was ill. They completed high school with a positive self-concept and a sense of control over their lives. ‘They displayed a more nurturant, responsible, and achievement-oriented attitude towards life than their high risk peers who developed coping problems. The resilient girls were also more assertive, achievement-oriented and independent.’ (Werner 1989, p. 161).

Family and environmental factors which played a role in successful coping for this group included smaller family size, with less closely spaced children, absence of separation from the primary care-taker in infancy, and the formation of close attachment with at least one care-giver who gave them positive attention. Some experienced nurturing from grandparents, siblings, or neighbours, who could provide positive role models. Maternal employment accompanied by responsibility for sibling care was a factor in the sense of responsibility and independence which was found amongst the resilient girls. Other factors were important for resilience in boys. They were more often first born, had positive male role models, and in adolescence had responsibilities and structure in their lives. For both sexes, the availability of emotional support from friends, relatives, neighbours, teachers, or other networks conferred resilience. An important point to note is that the influence of the various protective (p. 41) factors varied with the developmental stage of the child; for example biological factors were most powerful in infancy and early childhood while personality variables were important in adolescence.

Whilst temperament characteristics appeared to be only formally measured once during this study, it is clear that intrinsic personal qualities played an important part in the capacity of these vulnerable young people to cope, not only in providing them with a sense of their own competence and self worth, but in helping them to attract and maintain rewarding and healthy relationships with other people. The quality of ‘engagingness’ which sends out and receives positive messages about the self recurs throughout the resilience literature and exerts its effects across the lifespan. Werner and Smith (1989) noted ‘dispositional attributes that elicited positive responses from family members and strangers, such as robustness, vigor, and an active social temperament’ (p. 192). On the basis of this longitudinal research, Werner (1989) suggested that the influences on coping they identified may have a more generalized effect than do specific risks or stresses. She also noted as did Rutter (1985), that these factors have both direct and indirect effects, in individual, longitudinal, chain reactions.

The Australian Temperament Project (ATP)

The ATP is a prospective longitudinal study of temperament and behavioural development in a representative sample of Australian children followed from infancy to adolescence (Prior et al. 1998). Almost 2000 children and their families from across the state of Victoria have been surveyed at each developmental stage of the child’s life, using measures of temperament, behavioural adjustment, and related family factors. Thus we have data from infancy (4–9 months), toddlerhood, pre-school age, preparatory grade, and the second, fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth year of schooling in Australia. Survey data have been extended and amplified by numerous in-depth studies of particular subsamples of the children, such as those born prematurely, those showing early indications of aggressive behaviour or hyperactivity, shy children, learning disabled children, ethnic subgroups, and children with chronic/ongoing health problems (see Prior et al. 1993; Sanson et al. 1996, for examples).

The ATP has provided an opportunity to investigate the influence of temperament and family factors on psychosocial adjustment and on academic outcomes (Sanson et al. 1991; Smart et al. 1996; Prior et al. 1998). Two studies from this research programme illustrate further the associations between temperament and resilience or coping. In the first of these (Smith and Prior 1995), children from families experiencing high levels of stress were assessed on a variety of measures hypothesized to be related to coping. The 32 families, containing 81 school-aged children, had reported substantial levels of stressors such as chronic illness, low income, drug addiction in parents, marital disruption, loss of significant other, or housing difficulties. Not all of these families were from the ATP, the sample contained some referred from clinical agencies. However the selection criteria were common regardless of whether the children came from the ATP sample or from clinical referral.

Assessments of the children included temperament (Buss and Plomin 1984, EAS scale) and behavioural adjustment (Achenbach and Edelbrock Scales, 1983, 1986) as (p. 42) rated by teachers and parents. Self-competence was rated by the children on the Harter Perceived Competence Scale for Children (1985) and via a self-efficacy scale. Self-reported estimates of stress, and of coping success, were obtained from the children. They were also given a short IQ test.

Measures of parental mental health, social support, perceived family cohesion, maternal coping and competence, quality of home environment and the mother–child relationship were obtained during a home visit. This data set allowed comparison of various kinds of influences on the child’s coping capacities as well as the role of interactions between the various factors.

Children were designated ‘resilient’ or ‘non-resilient’ on the basis of their scores on the behavioural and competence outcome measures from the Achenbach and Edelbrock scales completed by teachers and parents. Resilient children were those showing no behavioural adjustment problems, and/or showing average or above level of skills or competencies. Separate analyses examined the various facets of competence as well as the two contexts of adaptation, home and school, on the basis of measures from all three informants (parent, teacher, child). Almost half of the sample of children were deemed resilient at home, while 60 per cent were resilient on the school-based measures.

For behavioural adjustment at home, the best of predictors of coping were easy temperament as rated by teachers, the warmth of the mother–child relationship, and the level of stress as perceived by the child. For social competence at home the best predictors were, again, easy temperament (mother rated) and the child’s intelligence level; with age, level of stress, and negative life events also adding to prediction.

Resilience in the school environment was best predicted by easy temperament, warmth of mother–child relationship, and fewer negative life events. This was the case for both behavioural adjustment and social competence outcomes. Child IQ again added to the prediction of social competence.

In a final analysis, children were classified as ‘globally resilient’ if their scores on all measures at both home and school fell within the normal range. These criteria were met by just over one third of the sample. The same temperament, relationship, and negative life events variables emerged in this analysis as the factors most closely associated with overall resilience or coping. In general, levels of coping in these children appeared to be higher at school, suggesting that this environment can be protective for children experiencing conflict at home (Rutter 1983).

In this study of children in stressed families, temperament, along with warmth of the mother–child relationship and lower levels of perceived stress stood out as providing the underpinnings of successful coping, despite substantial levels of family difficulties. The temperamental characteristics which emerged in this study such as social responsiveness, lower levels of reactivity and distress, even temperedness, and the capacity to draw people to them were similar to those identified in other studies (Rutter 1979; Werner and Smith 1982; Felsman and Vaillant 1987). Using more standardized and quantitative measures, and considering various measures of adjustment in home and school contexts, our findings are impressively consistent with this literature.

It is likely that the variables emerging in our analyses are interrelated in a complex way. The more positive and easy-going children engaged the positive attention and attachment of their mothers and their teachers, thus providing some protective (p. 43) influence in the stressful family situation. This, in turn, can enable children to rise above the difficulties, hence in coping successfully in their home and school lives, their perception of family problems may be a less negative and debilitating one. A sense that they are well liked and coping adequately allows them to manage the negative factors in their environment.

The final study to be described provides insights into coping as measured at the early adolescence phase in the ATP sample. At the middle childhood phase of the study we developed a family adversity scale based on the scales reported by Rutter, (1978) and Stanton et al. 1989). It contained the following items: father with semi-skilled or unskilled occupation, large family (4 + children); high mobility (5 + moves of home); broken home or single parent; two or more negative events (severe illness, loss of significant other, severe drop in income, etc.) in the past 12 months; and father unemployed during the past 12 months. We selected from the entire sample (N= 1536) all of the families who reported two or more of these factors when their ATP children were 9–10 years of age. This gave a sample of 201 families experiencing significant difficulties at this time. More than half of these families continued to experience substantial stressors as ascertained in a follow-up survey 4 years later.

From this at-risk sample, we then extracted three groups of children at the early adolescent stage, for comparison: those who were coping well despite earlier adversity, those who were not coping, and those who we deemed average in their coping skills. We used an operational definition of coping which was based on two sets of ratings, one by the children themselves, and the other by their parents or primary care-givers, on the Gresham and Elliot (1990) social skills rating system. These rating scales assess skills that are important in maintaining successful social relationships, with high scores indicating socially competent behaviour.

They comprise the factors of co-operation, which includes helping others, sharing, and complying with rules; assertion, which includes initiating behaviours and responding appropriately to the actions of other people; and self control, which taps the capacity to deal with conflict, to take turns, and to compromise appropriately. The parent version adds the subscale of responsibility, involving regard for property or work, and communicating in a mature way; and the child version includes empathy, including behaviours indicating concern and respect for the feelings and views of other people. Sample items include ‘shows interest in a variety of things’, ‘compromises in conflict situations by changing own ideas to reach agreement’, ‘controls temper when arguing with other children’, ‘attempts household tasks before asking for your help’.

The high coping group contained 30 children who scored above the 75th percentile on social competence scores by one informant (parent or child) and above the 65th percentile by the other. Poorly coping children (N =43) were those who scored below the 25th percentile on social competence by one source and below the 35th percentile by the other. The remaining children were termed average in their coping capacities. These three groups did not differ in terms of the numbers or types of adverse circumstances characterizing their families. High and average copers contained equal numbers of boys and girls, but there was a trend for more boys to be in the poor coping group.

The groups were then compared on temperament, behavioural adjustment, family and peer relationships, and school adjustment, to identify factors associated with good and poor coping. These comparisons were made for both concurrent (age 13–14 years) (p. 44) social competence, and then looking back at their histories at 12–13 years, 11–12 years, and 9–10 years for salient distinguishing characteristics from the time when adversity was first measured. We could thus take a longitudinal perspective on the factors which distinguished the children who coped well despite adversity in their lives.

The first point to be noted is that the high coping children were consistently so. That is, they were not only coping well at the time of selection into groups, that is, early adolescence, but at every previous year level studied they showed higher levels of social competence, and lower levels of behaviour problems than the other groups. Hence their coping capacities stood out clearly, from the age of 9–10 years, and continued through into early adolescence. The obverse applied to the children who were poor copers; their behaviour problems were consistently greater than those of the other two groups, and their social skills were always lower across the years of the study.

At every year level studied, temperament factors emerged as significant differentiators of the groups. In particular, high coping children were more likely than the other two groups to be high on ‘self regulation’ as evidenced by more positive scores on the temperament factors of reactivity and persistence. They showed more emotional control, were more task focused, and able to follow through with their interests and activities.

Concurrent comparisons also showed that high copers were more successful academically at school, and showed greater curiosity and depth of interest in a variety of areas. Their peer relationships were better, as was their family attachment, with higher levels of warmth of relationship and communication reported. These factors were significant in ratings by parents and by the children.

We also had data provided by teachers when the children were 11–12 years of age and in the final year of elementary school. Teachers’ ratings were consistent with those of parents and children in indicating more positive temperament in high than in poor copers, as measured in the task orientation factor from the teacher temperament scale of Keogh et al. (1982). Teachers too, reported higher levels of academic and social competence in the high versus the low copers.

At the 9–10 year age level, average and high copers were similar on most measures, but the low copers were distinguished by more behavioural maladjustment and lower social skills. It seemed that the coping skills of the resilient group consolidated as they grew towards adolescence, by comparison with the poor copers who fell progressively further behind in their social adjustment.

The final measure of importance in this series of comparisons, is one called ‘mothers overall rating’ of the temperament of the child on a five point scale from ‘very easy’ to ‘very difficult’. In three of the four waves of data across the 5 years of this study, the high coping group was reported by their mothers to be easier than the other two groups. Conversely, the poorly coping group was consistently rated at the difficult end of the scale.

Two other questions are of interest and can be examined in this data set. How do the good copers who come from an earlier adversity situation compare with children who had not suffered these disadvantages? Comparisons of high copers with earlier adversity, with well-adjusted children without such difficulties indicated no significant differences between the groups. It can be argued, then, that positive temperament characteristics were protective influences which allowed the disadvantaged children to (p. 45) cope as well, throughout the years of this study, as those not suffering adversity. However, the picture for the poor coping children is not the simple converse of this finding. Comparisons of the poor copers, that is, poorly adjusted children, from adverse versus non-adverse situations, also showed no differences. In this case it appeared that for children with adjustment difficulties at 9–10 years of age, it made minimal difference whether they suffered family adversity or not over the longer term. At all stages from 9 to 14 years of age the poorly coping children remained problematic, and neither more or less so than poorly adjusted children not suffering family adversity.

This longitudinal work, like that of Werner and Smith (1982) supports the claim that the ability to cope with adversity is strongly associated with individual temperamental profiles. The findings highlight the importance of a cluster of characteristics which can be called temperamental self-regulation, which facilitate children’s capacity to maintain socially and academically competent behaviour at home and at school, even when their family circumstances are disadvantaging. They also indicate stability in coping and in the factors associated with it, at least across the years from 9 to 14, providing one of the few studies of coping patterns over time.

Processes and mechanisms in the temperament/coping relationship

While temperament has been shown to contribute to both positive and negative adjustment in a general way (e.g. Rutter 1987; Bates 1989b; Chess and Thomas 1989; Maziade 1989; Prior et al. 1993, 1998), we need to understand more thoroughly which aspects of temperament play a particular role and in what way they influence coping. Garrison (1992) has argued that temperament fits into models involving cognitive appraisal, the availability and use of social supports as well as biophysiological parameters.

Two particular factors seem of special significance for coping in children. The first is somewhat akin to the ‘easy child’ concept of Thomas and Chess (1977), and involves what we have called ‘engagingness’. This is a global construct incorporating factors such as sociability or approachingness, a prevailing positive mood and adaptive outlook, sometimes called positive emotionality, and an outgoing and cooperative orientation towards people and situations which fosters liking, and warmth in others. This factor allows the child to draw the care and attention of others towards him/her and can facilitate the finding of alternative sources of support and nurture when there is conflict and disadvantage in the immediate family. This mechanism has been vividly illustrated in the work of Werner and Smith (1989) with the Kauai children.

The second aspect was also highlighted above in relation to studies of coping and involves the temperament construct called self-regulation. Rothbart (1989a, p. 66) has described this as ‘individual differences in the ease with which self-regulatory motor and attentional reactions are initiated’. It is influenced by positive and negative affective reactions and by approach–avoidance tendencies, hence there are also components of emotionality and approach/sociability within this construct. Rothbart further notes that effort is involved in self-regulation, that is, some degree of conscious control over reactions. She also links this with Vygotskyian cognitive development theory whereby (p. 46) early in development the child begins to exert control over reactions and responses through verbal self-regulation (Rothbart 1989b).

This characteristic of adaptive self-regulation helps a child to cope with stress in moderating and managing conflict, and negative events, through regulating the intensity of reactions, attending adaptively to what needs to be done to enhance coping, and keeping elements of self-control in place so that threat is manageable rather than overwhelming. It is the opposite pole of impulsivity, unmodulated behaviour, and attentional disorganization, which leads children into maladaptive responses that can elicit negative responses from others, and undermine coping attempts. Sociability and positive mood qualities are likely to enhance the ability of the child to fit well into the social environment and to sustain secure and adaptive relationships with significant others (Eisenberg et al. 1997). The self-regulatory capacity identified in the ATP adolescent study was made up of a combination of high persistence (the ability to direct and sustain attention or task focus despite distraction and to complete what is undertaken) and positive flexibility, or the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, demands, and frustration, in a calm and regulated manner.

In like vein, Eisenberg et al. (1997) stress the importance of regulatory factors including reactivity, inhibitory control, positive emotionality, sociability, and activity, all of which have been linked to competence in managing conflict and stress. They argue that high levels of emotionality will lead to overarousal in response to stress, which may lead to a choice of inappropriate coping strategies. Those whose emotional and behavioural self-regulation skills are well developed are more likely to react in a more controlled and competent way.

The intrinsic personal factors of positive emotionality and self-regulation can both protect a child from being overcome by difficulties and allow him/her to derive support from other sources in the environment.

The temperament factor which features consistently in the ATP analyses of coping over time is persistence. The effects of this characteristic may be to facilitate greater effort in finding coping strategies and generating and trying a greater range of strategies, that is, this assists in problem-focused coping particularly. Eisenberg et al. (1997) suggest, however, that active and persistent children might not do so well in stress situations that are beyond their control, when such strategy-based approaches may increase frustration. The converse of these relationships have also been demonstrated where children (particularly boys) who are low in regulation and high in reactivity function less well socially and may be more vulnerable to stress (Eisenberg et al. 1995).

An additional question raised by many researchers in this field and well illustrated in the Frydenberg and Lewis studies of coping in adolescence concerns the consistent sex differences found in the literature (Frydenberg 1997) (see also Werner and Smith (1982) for descriptions of sex differences in coping from childhood through to adulthood). The evidence suggests that on the whole, girls are better able to cope with stress than boys. The two sexes make use of different mechanisms, with boys more inclined to use physical action-based coping strategies and problem solving. Girls seem to find it easier to talk about problems and to work towards solutions with the help of friends and other sources of social and emotional support. Males are also more prone to denial and sometimes to more aggressive approaches to coping with threats (Frydenberg 1997).

(p. 47) Little is known about the interaction of temperament with gender, nor whether there are diffferential patterns in coping related to temperament for boys and for girls (but see Hetherington 1991). There are few sex differences in temperament in infancy. However, as children mature, sex differences do appear and they are often in the direction of more difficult temperament and less self-regulatory capacities for boys (Prior et al. 1993) and higher levels of emotionality for girls. Sanson et al. (1993) have argued that western style socialization processes may disadvantage the social adjustment of boys, in providing models of aggression, and in requiring lesser degrees of responsibility and nurturance from boys. In this regard it is of interest that the Kauai study identified responsibility for sharing domestic responsibilities and the care and nurturing of young siblings as contributing to the coping abilities of their resilient group of young people. Perhaps the combination of greater self-regulation skills and a stronger propensity to communicate and to share difficulties with supportive others may contribute to the greater skills of girls in coping under stress.

There are also cultural influences that merit consideration in analysing coping and stress relationships (DeVries and Sameroff 1984; Prior et al. 1986; Axia et al. 1992). The literature is dominated by studies of western cultural groups where there is some consensus about what constitutes coping and what are appropriate and acceptable expressions of responsible behaviour, and of emotions. The ‘stiff upper lip’ convention comes to mind, especially for males. It may be that in other cultures, coping would be defined differently, and that other kinds of temperament would have positive versus negative influence. In one of the few studies relevant to this question, DeVries and Sameroff (1984) found that in an African tribe suffering hardship including starvation, so-called ‘difficult’ infants (fussy and demanding) survived better than did easy infants. In the Italian culture, higher levels of reactivity and intensity of emotional expression are culturally sanctioned, hence different temperamental influences, or different person–environment interactions may be relevant to adjustment in this culture (Axia et al. 1992). We know relatively little about how relationships between temperament and coping styles and strategies may differ in subtle ways across cultures, and for different situations.

Links between these mechanisms and the broader concepts of how coping takes place, or process explanations, need to be elucidated. Rutter (1990) has written of the possibility of a ‘steeling’ effect, whereby exposure to stress, as long as it is not too much or too chronic, that is, occurs in measured doses, can have a steeling or hardening effect on the child. It can provide the opportunity for successful coping which strengthens the capacity to deal with further stresses when they occur. This is akin to the ‘challenge model’ of Garmezy et al. (1984).

The opportunity for the experience of successful coping in combination with stable positive temperamental characteristics helps a child to rise above or to escape from the negative effects of stress, further strengthening coping responses. Garmezy et al. (1984) also posited an ‘immunity’ or protective factor model where personal attributes condition or modulate the impact of stress such that positive attributes immunize against maladaptation.

Another way in which adaptive temperament features will be helpful in successful coping is likely to be in reducing the risk of developing feelings of helplessness and in facilitating the acquisition of ‘learned helpfulness’ (Rachman 1979). Temperament also (p. 48) becomes an interactional influence in the generation, selection, and generalization of adaptive planning and problem-solving strategies which are part of the cognitive components of coping. One of the primary strategies here is in seeking and obtaining resources outside the problem situation which can assist adjustment, and thus contribute to resilience (Werner 1989). Having the quality of ‘engagingness in interpersonal functioning’ then means that this is likely to be a successful strategy. Positive emotionality and self-regulation attributes increase the probability that a person will be proactive in efforts to deal with stress and will develop a cognitive set which will support such efforts. Thinking about the processes in the temperament–coping connection provides clues about the ways in which the ‘person’ side of the complex equation functions to facilitate coping in young people.

Distinctions have been drawn between problem-focused coping, and emotion-focused coping (Compas et al. 1992). Given the stable and pervasive influence of temperament in children’s adjustment, it is reasonable to claim that it will influence both kinds of coping through different but complementary mechanisms. It may be that specific temperament characteristics will have differential salience for various coping approaches and strategies. This question challenges us to develop further research, focused on more fine-grained analyses of coping processes.


The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions to this chapter of the Australian Temperament Project researcher, Diana Smart.


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