Photo by: Sly
Personality development is the development of the organized pattern of
behaviors and attitudes that makes a person distinctive. Personality
development occurs by the ongoing interaction of
, character, and environment.
Personality is what makes a person a unique person, and it is recognizable
soon after birth. A child’s personality has several components:
temperament, environment, and character. Temperament is the set of
genetically determined traits that determine the child’s approach
to the world and how the child learns about the world. There are no genes
that specify personality traits, but some genes do control the development
of the nervous system, which in turn controls behavior.
A second component of personality comes from adaptive patterns related to
a child’s specific environment. Most psychologists agree that these
two factors—temperament and environment—influence the
development of a person’s personality the most. Temperament, with
its dependence on genetic factors, is sometimes referred to as
“nature,” while the environmental factors are called
While there is still controversy as to which factor ranks higher in
affecting personality development, all experts agree that high-quality
parenting plays a critical role in the development of a child’s
personality. When parents understand how their child responds to certain
situations, they can anticipate issues that might be problematic for their
child. They can prepare the child for the situation or in some cases they
may avoid a potentially difficult situation altogether. Parents who know
how to adapt their parenting approach to the particular temperament of
their child can best provide guidance and ensure the successful
development of their child’s personality.
Finally, the third component of personality is character—the set of
emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns learned from experience that
determines how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. A person’s
character continues to evolve throughout life, although much depends on
inborn traits and early experiences. Character is also dependent on a
In 1956, psychiatrist Erik Erikson provided an insightful description as
to how personality develops based on his extensive experience in
psychotherapy with children and adolescents from low, upper, and
middle-class backgrounds. According to Erikson, the socialization process
of an individual consists of eight phases, each one accompanied by a
“psychosocial crisis” that must be solved if the person is
to manage the next and subsequent phases satisfactorily. The stages
significantly influence personality development, with five of them
occurring during infancy, childhood, and
During the first two years of life, an infant goes through the first
Learning Basic Trust or Mistrust (Hope)
. Well-nurtured and loved, the infant develops trust and security and a
basic optimism. Badly handled, the infant becomes insecure and learns
The second stage occurs during early childhood, between about 18 months to
two years and three to four years of age. It deals with
Learning Autonomy or Shame (Will)
. Well-parented, the child emerges from this stage with self-confidence,
elated with his or her newly found control. The early part of this stage
can also include stormy
, stubbornness, and negativism, depending on the child’s
The third stage occurs during the “play age,” or the later
years from about three to entry into formal school. The developing child
Learning Initiative or Guilt (Purpose)
. The child learns to use imagination; to broaden skills through active
and fantasy; to cooperate with others; and to lead as well as to follow.
If unsuccessful, the child becomes fearful, is unable to join groups, and
harbors guilty feelings. The child depends excessively on adults and is
restricted both in the development of play skills and in imagination.
The fourth stage,
Learning Industry or Inferiority (Competence)
, occurs during school age, up to and possibly including junior high
school. The child learns to master more formal skills:
- relating with peers according to rules
progressing from free play to play that is structured by rules and
requires teamwork (team sports)
- learning basic intellectual skills (reading, arithmetic)
At this stage, the need for self-discipline increases every year. The
child who, because of his or her successful passage through earlier
stages, is trusting, autonomous, and full of initiative, will quickly
learn to be industrious. However, the mistrusting child will doubt the
future and will feel inferior.
The fifth stage,
Learning Identity or Identity Diffusion (Fidelity)
, occurs during adolescence from age 13 or 14. Maturity starts developing
during this time; the
young person acquires self-certainty as opposed to self-doubt and
experiments with different constructive roles rather than adopting a
negative identity, such as delinquency. The well-adjusted adolescent
actually looks forward to achievement, and, in later adolescence, clear
sexual identity is established. The adolescent seeks leadership (someone
to inspire him or her), and gradually develops a set of ideals to live by.
The Child Development Institute (CDI) rightfully points out that very
little knowledge is available on the type of specific environment that
will result, for example, in traits of trust being more developed in a
person’s personality. Helping the child through the various stages
of emotional and personality development is a complex and difficult task.
Searching for the best ways of accomplishing this task accounts for most
of the research carried out in the field of child development today.
Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers emphasized how childhood experiences
affect personality development. Many psychologists believe that there are
certain critical periods in personality development—periods when
the child will be more sensitive to certain environmental factors. Most
experts believe that a child’s experiences in the
are important for his or her personality development, although not
exactly as described by Erikson’s stages, but in good agreement
with the importance of how a child’s needs should to be met in the
family environment. For example, children who are toilet trained too early
or have their
carried out too strictly may become rebellious. Another example is shown
by children who learn appropriate behavior to their sex lives when there
is a good relationship with their same-sex parent.
Another environmental factor of importance is culture. Researchers
comparing cultural groups for specific personality types have found some
important differences. For example, Northern European countries and the
United States have individualistic cultures that put more emphasis on
individual needs and accomplishments. In contrast, Asian, African, Central
American, and South American countries are characterized more by
community-centered cultures that focus on belonging to a larger group,
such as a family, or nation. In these cultures, cooperation is considered
a more important value than competitiveness, which will necessarily affect
Infants who are just a few weeks old display differences between each
other in how active they are, how responsive they are to change, and how
irritable they are. Some infants cry constantly while others seem happy
and stay fairly quiet. Child development research conducted by the CDI has
identified nine temperamental traits that may contribute to a
child’s personality development being challenging or difficult:
- activity level (how active the child is generally)
distractibility (degree of concentration and paying attention when the
child is not particularly interested)
- intensity (how loud the child is)
regularity (the predictability of biological functions like appetite and
sensory threshold (how sensitive the child is to physical stimuli:
touch, taste, smell, sound, light)
approach/withdrawal (characteristic responses of a child to a new
situation or to strangers)
adaptability (how easily the child adapts to transitions and changes
such as switching to a new activity)
- persistence (stubbornness, inability to give up)
mood (tendency to react to the world primarily in a positive or negative
Temperamental traits are enduring personality characteristics that are
neither “good” nor “bad.” Early on, parents
can work with the child’s temperamental traits rather than oppose
them. Later, as the child grows up, parents can help the child to adapt to
his or her own world in spite of inborn temperament.
Most children experience healthy personality development. However, some
parents worry as to whether their infant, child, or teenager has a
personality disorder. Parents are usually the first to recognize that
their child has a problem with emotions or behaviors that may point to a
have great difficulty dealing with other people. They tend to be
inflexible, rigid, and unable to respond to the changes and normal
stresses of life and find it very difficult to participate in social
activities. When these characteristics are present in a child to an
extreme, when they are persistent and when they interfere with healthy
development, a diagnostic evaluation with a licensed physician or mental
health professional is recommended.
When to call the doctor
Parents who suspect that their child has a personality disorder should
seek professional help. It is a very
important first step in knowing for sure whether there is a disorder, and
if so, what treatment can best help the child. Child and adolescent
psychiatrists are trained to help parents sort out whether their
child’s personality development is normal.
—A stereotyped motor response to an internal or external
—An individual’s set of emotional, cognitive, and
behavioral patterns learned and accumulated over time.
—The act or process of knowing or perceiving.
—The ability (or lack of) to think, learn, and memorize.
—A building block of inheritance, which contains the instructions
for the production of a particular protein, and is made up of a
molecular sequence found on a section of DNA. Each gene is found on a
precise location on a chromosome.
—The condition of being the same with, or possessing, a character
that is well described, asserted, or defined.
—A state of full development or completed growth.
—The organized pattern of behaviors and attitudes that makes a
human being distinctive. Personality is formed by the ongoing
interaction of temperament, character, and environment.
—The process by which new members of a social group are
integrated in the group.
—A person’s natural disposition or inborn combination of
mental and emotional traits.
AACAP and David Pruitt.
Your Child: Emotional, Behavioral, and Cognitive Development from
Infancy through Pre-Adolescence.
New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
AACAP and David Pruitt.
Your Adolescent: Emotional, Behavioral, and Cognitive Development from
Early Adolescence through the Teen Years.
New York: Harper Collins, 1999.
Allen, Bem P.
Personality Theories: Development, Growth, and Diversity.
Harlow, UK: Allyn & Bacon, 2002.
Raising Children With Character: Parents, Trust, and the Development of
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999.
Childhood and Society.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
The Erik Erikson Reader.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Working With Emotional Intelligence.
New York: Bantam, 1998.
On Becoming a Person.
Boston: Mariner Books, 1995.
Shaffer, David R.
Social and Personality Development.
Independence, KT: Wadsworth Publishing, 1999.
“Social, Emotional, and Personality Development.”
Handbook of Child Psychology
, edited by William Damon and Nancy Eisenberg. 5th ed. New York: Wiley,
Biesanz, J. C. et al. “Personality over time: Methodological
approaches to the study of short-term and long-term development and
Journal of Personality.
71, no. 6 (December, 2003): 905–41.
Hart, D. et al. “Personality and development in childhood: a
Monographs in Social Research on Child Development.
68, no. 1 (2003): 1–119.
Jensen-Campbell, L. A. et al. “Interpersonal conflict,
agreeableness, and personality development.”
Journal of Personality.
71, no. 6 (December, 2003): 1059–85.
Roberts, B. W. and R. W. Robins. “Person-Environment Fit and its
implications for personality development: a longitudinal study.”
Journal of Personality.
72, no. 1 (February, 2004): 89–110.
Roberts, B. W. et al. “The kids are alright: growth and stability
in personality development from adolescence to adulthood.”
Journal of Personality & Social Psychology.
81, no. 4 (October, 2001): 670–83.
Shiner, R, and A. Caspi. “Personality differences in childhood and
adolescence: measurement, development, and consequences.”
Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry.
44, no. 1 (January, 2003): 2–32.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). 3615
Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Washington, DC.
20016–3007. (202) 966–7300. Web site:
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Elk
Grove Village, IL 60007–1098. (847) 434–4000. Web site:
American Psychological Association (APA). 750 First Street, NE,
Washington, DC 20002–4242. (800) 374–2721. Web site:
Child Development Institute (CDI). 3528 E Ridgeway Road, Orange,
California 92867. (714) 998–8617. Web site:
Child Development Basics. Available online at:
http://www.childdevelopmentinfo.com/development (accessed March
Great Ideas in Personality.
Available online at: http://www.personalityresearch.org/
(accessed March 5, 2005).
The Personality Project.
Available online at:
March 5, 2005).
Monique Laberge, Ph.D.