How stable are toddlers’ personalities?
Studies that follow children and gather data over the course of many years are rare, expensive, and difficult to run, which means there aren’t that many of them to choose from. Of those that do exist, though, they generally agree that, from around 3 years old, certain general character traits that can define a personality are generally set. This means that a shy 3-year-old may be going through a bit of a phase, but this shyness might be here to stay. Toddlers and children grow and change throughout their lives, so it’s entirely possible that a more rambunctious toddler could bloom into a bookish teenager, especially if they have influences in their life that encourage that kind of behavior.
Changes in children’s personalities are different from phases because they start from the point of view of the previous trait. Even if a toddler who likes to jump off of things whenever they get the chance grows into a preteen who’s scared of heights and careful around ledges, they still started out as that toddler who liked the adrenaline rush of leaping around. A longitudinal study of around a thousand toddlers through their mid twenties that was published in 2003 stressed both the consistency of personality traits from the toddler years and the ability to change.
One question raised by the study, though, was whether the changes it observed were actually changes in personality, or just changes in behaviors. If a chatty child learns to listen more as they grow up, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have any less to say. Instead, it might mean that they have learned to value listening as well as talking, or that they have learned that it’s more socially acceptable to take turns in a conversation.
Emerging behaviors in the toddler years
Some parts of a toddler’s personality have been present in some form or another since infancy, but others are only just developing. It would be hard for a new parent to predict how imaginative their 6-month-old is going to be, since they not only don't have the verbal ability to share their imagination, but also may still be forming the cognitive framework they'll need in understanding the world enough to imagine new things in it.
Another aspect of personality that develops in the toddler years is attention span. Giving children the chance to keep themselves amused, or to direct their own play, can help to encourage attention span. Attention span is one of those factors that can play into how independent a child is, how self-confident they feel, and how much patience they have, and parents and caregivers can encourage a healthy attention span as a child grows.
Getting to know your toddler is going to be one of the biggest parts of the next few years. At the same time, they are going to be getting to know themself better every day, too, As their personality grows, they are going to be influenced by any number of different people, but it’s going to be your guidance, and your example, that makes some of the strongest impact on the person they grow up to be.
Linda Carroll. “Personality may be set by preschool.” NBCNews. NBC News, January 15 2008. Web.
Avshalom Caspi, et al. “Children’s Behavioral Styles at Age 3 are Linked to Their Adult Personality Traits at Age 26.” King’s College London & University of Madison at Wisconsin. 71(4): 496-513. Web. 2003.
Avshalom Caspi, et al. “Undercontrolled temperament at age 3 predicts disordered gambling at age 32: a longitudinal study of a complete birth cohort.” Psychological Science. 23(5): 510-6. Web. May 2012.
- Alix Spiegel. “Siblings Share Genes, But Rarely Personalities.” NPR. National Public Radio, November 22 2010. Web.