Understanding Temperament: Approach/Withdrawal

Temperament Matters

Do you have children who are initially shy when meeting new people or encountering new things?

Alternatively, do you have children who are bolder and jump right in when meeting new people or joining activities?

The ease with which your children approach new things versus withdrawing from them is one of ten innate temperament traits that every child possesses, and is a contributing factor in helping to make every child unique.

Understanding your children’s temperament can help you to tailor your parenting and your children’s environment so they can feel and be more successful.


What is Approach/Withdrawal?

Approach/withdrawal refers to your children’s first and usual reactions to new things, experiences, places, ideas or people.

Some children are more comfortable approaching and trying new things right from the start, while others appear more cautious at first.

This trait is closely tied to the temperament trait of adaptability, which refers to how easily children adapt to changes and transitions following their initial reaction. Most children who are slow-to-approach are also slow-to-adapt.


Determine your children’s degree of approach or withdrawal

To identify where your children fall with regard to their first reactions to new things, you can use the following questions. Track your answers on the following scale from one to five:

  • What are your children’s first reactions to new things, places, ideas or people?

  • Do they fuss when trying new foods or new clothes?

  • As toddlers, did your children cling to your legs when you entered a new place like a school or a store, or when you introduced them to a stranger?

  • Do they protest and get upset when you try to introduce new activities or changes in routines?


No                                                                                         Yes

1                    2                      3                    4                         5

               Outgoing                                                  Cautious/Withdrawing

Quick to approach                                            Slow to approach


Children with initial withdrawal response

child hiding behind mom's legIf the majority of your responses fall to the right side of the scale, then you have children whose initial response to new things is to withdraw. This means that when introduced to someone or something for the first time, their first reaction is either to reject it or to approach it cautiously.

This can be very frustrating to parents who want their children to accept new things with excitement, but instead get children who initially complain and cry. For these children, their natural reaction is to push away any new foods, places, strangers and toys even if you know it is something they would like.

  • The benefit of having children who are slow-to-warm is that they tend to be more cautious and think things through before they act.

  • These children, who are thoughtful, cautious, careful observers, and evaluators, are less likely to engage in common adolescent risky behavior and experimentation.

  • As adults they can do well in careers in academia, the sciences or law.

Children with initial approach response

If, on the other hand, most of your responses to the questions above fall toward the left side of the scale, then you have children whose initial response to new things is to approach them with ease.

    child running toward something

  • These children tend to embrace new activities and enjoy meeting new people and trying new things like foods and clothes.

  • Because their initial response tends to be quick, they may impulsively make decisions and jump into situations and activities without any deliberation.

  • As teens, these children may impulsively follow the crowd and would need your encourage to think independently and to evaluate consequences before acting.


Things Parents Can Do

  • Understand that approach/withdrawal is a part of your children’s in-born temperament.

  • Be aware of how your children react to new things, people and situations.

  • Help slow-to-warm children understand that new things make them feel uncomfortable.

    • Give these children time to think about new things before they make decisions about them.

    • Allow them to observe and feel comfortable before they have to meet someone or participate in new activities.

    • Permit them to change their minds, knowing that temperamentally their initial reaction to things does not always reflect how they truly feel about them.

    • Provide encouragement that they can handle and even learn to enjoy new experiences.

    • Explain what will happen at an outing and what behavior is expected. Balance this so that you don’t increase the child’s anxiety.

  • Lower your expectations for initial acceptance of anything new.

  • By accepting your child’s cautious side, you will foster flexibility but in the child’s time frame.

  • For quick-to-approach children, teach them to think and use caution before jumping in, making hasty decisions, or going along with new ideas or changes.

  • Teach children the words to use to express more accurately and appropriately how they are feeling.

  • Learn to work together. Understand how your temperament does or does not fit with your children’s temperament and create strategies to help each other.

  • Identify and value your children’s unique temperament and help them to understand the value of their uniqueness.

  • Send messages to your children that help them to feel good about who they are, such as:

  • “It is okay to take your time.”

    “You can think through this situation.”

    “You can change your mind from how you initially felt about this.”

    “You can learn to stop and think before you act.”

    “It’s alright that you like to watch before you jump in to participate.”

    “Change is difficult for you.”



For more information about temperament, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help families do the best job they can to raise their children.

Raising Your Spirited Child by Kurcinka The Difficult Child Understanding Temperament by Schick The Challenging Child by Greenspan

<recommended books about temperament

<all our recommended parenting books

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