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Does Children’s Temperament Reflect Their Level of Sensitivity?

14th December 2021 - By Prof Patrick Davies

About the authors

As a developmental psychologist, Dr. Davies focuses on understanding the mechanisms and conditions underpinning the interplay between the quality of family relationship characteristics and child functioning.

He oversees several federally funded projects that utilize longitudinal designs with multiple methods and multiple levels of analysis (e.g., relational, behavioural, neurobiological, neurocognitive, genetic).


In our recent study, we examined whether children’s “dove” temperament, characterized by a low threshold of environmental stimulation and greater behavioural flexibility, may reflect environmental sensitivity.

Findings across two studies indicated that children with “dove” temperaments had lower psychological problems under supportive family conditions and higher psychological difficulties in adverse family contexts.

Study background and aims

Temperamental dispositions, which are characterized as early emerging behavioural styles that are consistent across time and situation, have long been theorized to signify differences between children in their sensitivity to the environment [1].

However, progress in identifying the specific behavioural characteristics that signify environmental sensitivity has been limited [2]. In our two-study paper, we examined whether children who adopted a “dove” temperamental pattern may exhibit greater sensitivity to both supportive and adverse family interactions.

Based on evolutionary models of temperament [3], “dove” temperament was expressed in risky and unfamiliar contexts as cautious, restrained behaviour that reflects tendencies to pause to register, process, and deliberate on plans to regulate exposure to the situation.

As another part of the pattern, dove temperament is expressed as prolonged interest, contentment, and engagement in rewarding or familiar settings.

We hypothesized that the environmental responsiveness underlying dove temperament would be expressed in children’s better psychological adjustment when exposed to greater family support.

Conversely, the responsiveness of children high in dove temperament may also increase their vulnerability to psychological problems when exposed to family discord by sensitizing them to environmental threats [4].

As a result, children who have dove temperaments may be in a significantly better position to profit from supportive, resource-rich socialization contexts but also suffer disproportionately when exposed to adverse and threatening rearing conditions.

Study design

We tested our hypotheses in two samples of children [5]. In study 1, 70 mothers and their 4-6 year old children (57% girls; 33% Black or multi-racial) participated in the study at a single time point. In Study 2, we collected data from 243 4 year-olds and their parents at three annual time points (56% girls; 54% Black or multi-racial).

In both studies, trained raters assessed levels of family support (e.g., parental warmth) and difficulties (e.g., parental anger) from typical family interactions. Trained raters also measured children’s dove temperament in each study based on their behavioural responses to different situations that vary in their unfamiliarity, risk, and reward value (e.g., asked to identify objects concealed in boxes based on touch).

Higher dove temperament was indexed by children who showed reticence and cautiousness in risky or unfamiliar parts of the tasks and more prolonged contentment and interest in familiar or rewarding parts of the tasks.

Mothers reported on children’s psychological problems (e.g., anxiety, impulsivity, hostility) in Study 1, whereas teachers reported on a more extensive set of questions to assess children’s emotional (e.g., anxiety), social (e.g., withdrawal), and behaviour (e.g., hostility) problems.

Key findings

In supporting its role as a sensitivity factor, children with higher dove temperaments experienced psychological outcomes in a “for better” and “for worse” manner that was dependent on the quality of their experiences in the family.

More specifically, the results of Study 1 indicated that maternal parenting quality was only related to psychological functioning for children who were high in dove temperament.

On the “for better” side, children experienced substantially lower psychological problems (e.g., being nervous, having temper tantrums, kicking and biting other children, etc.) when exposed to more supportive maternal parenting practices, such as displays of affection and greater awareness of own child’s needs and emotions.

On the “for worse side,” children displayed disproportionately greater psychological problems when they experienced higher levels of maternal unsupportive parenting, such as anger displays, aggression and disengagement.

Study 2 expanded the findings from Study 1 by exploring whether broader measures of the family environment encompassing interparental, mother-child, and father-child interactions more strongly predicted later changes in psychological problems for children with higher dove temperament.

In largely replicating the findings from Study 1, children with high dove temperament had lower levels of social and emotional problems under supportive family conditions and higher social and emotional difficulties under adverse conditions.

The results were consistent even after taking into account the role of other temperament characteristics.

General conclusions and implications

Consistent with differential susceptibility theory [1], children who were high in dove temperament showed substantially poorer outcomes when exposed to more adverse family conditions but also significantly better outcomes under more supportive family circumstances.

Thus, although this temperamental pattern may carry selective costs in some settings, it also confers some advantages in some socialization contexts.

Although some caution should be exercised until more research is conducted on dove temperament, it may eventually translate to improvements in the effectiveness of clinical and public policy initiatives.

More specifically, our results suggest that children higher in dove temperament benefit the most from prevention, intervention, and policy efforts that are designed to increase their access to support and resources in family contexts.


  1. Belsky, J., & Pluess, M. (2009). Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin, 135(6), 885-908.
  2. Slagt, M., Dubas, J. S., Deković, M., & van Aken, M. A. (2016). Differences in sensitivity to parenting depending on child temperament: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 142(10), 1068-1110.
  3. Korte, S. M., Koolhaas, J. M., Wingfield, J. C., & McEwen, B. S. (2005). The Darwinian concept of stress: Benefits of allostasis and costs of allostatic load and the trade-offs in health and disease. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 29(1), 3-38.
  4. Davies, P., & Martin, M. (2014). Children’s coping and adjustment in high-conflict homes: The reformulation of emotional security theory. Child Development Perspectives, 8(4), 242-249.
  5. Davies, P. T., Hentges, R. F., Coe, J. L., Parry, L. Q., & Sturge-Apple, M. L. (2021). Children’s dove temperament as a differential susceptibility factor in child rearing contexts. Developmental Psychology, 57(8), 1274–1290.