Landmark study marks 30-year milestone

Landmark study marks 30-year milestone

Media release — 20 May 2013

Understanding childhood temperament and its impact on behaviours in adulthood has been highlighted in a new report about the Australian Temperament Project (ATP).

Australian Institute of Family Studies Director, Professor Alan Hayes said the report draws together key findings from the study, which has been tracking the progress and wellbeing of a group of people and their families for 30 years.

"This flagship study has been very important in helping us - as parents and researchers - to understand the links from early childhood development to a range of things such as teenage alcohol use, risky driving behaviours and civic participation,' he said.

"The ATP, which began in 1983 has tracked the development of more than 1,000 Victorian children from infancy to their late twenties.

"It is one of the longest running social studies in Australia and one of the few in the world with information on three generations of family members - the young people, their parents and now the young people's children.

"The ATP was among the first in Australia to show a link between parental attitudes to alcohol use and teenagers' drinking habits.

"It has been ground-breaking.

"It has shown how temperament affects social, emotional and behavioural development.

"Temperament is each individual's way of reacting to social surroundings - that we can see even in a newborn.

"The study has also led the way in moving beyond solely focusing on things that can go wrong in people's lives to also look at what contributed to healthy development.'

Professor Hayes said key findings of the Australian Temperament Project include:

Infancy / Early childhood

  • Temperament is relatively stable over time, with many children showing small changes but very few children changing radically in their temperament.
  • More 'difficult' infant temperamental characteristics can lead to behavioural and emotional adjustment problems in early childhood and beyond.
  • Temperament can be modified through experiences such as the style of parenting. Shy infants were more likely to overcome their shyness if parents were warm, positive and understanding.

Primary School years

  • The seeds of many school-aged problems could be seen in early childhood. Children with difficult temperament traits or emerging behaviour problems were particularly vulnerable to later difficulties.
  • It is possible for children to recover from early learning problems. Boys in particular were more likely to recover if they did not have other problems; had good thinking skills and their families were reasonably well-off.


  • Anxiety and depression are common problems in adolescence and parents may notice symptoms from early childhood.
  • Shyness, irritability and troubles with peers or parents may increase the risk of young people experiencing ongoing problems with anxiety or depression.
  • Females are more likely to experience anxiety and depression over adolescence and early adulthood.
  • Early identification and treatment of children with anxiety or depression may reduce the likelihood of such problems becoming entrenched.
  • Children with high anxiety or depression may be more likely to overcome their symptoms if they develop good social skills, have better parents and peer relationships and have more positive school experiences.
  • Genetic factors appear to increase the risk of anxiety and depression for some people, along with a range of other influences.
  • Most adolescents do not engage in high levels of antisocial behaviour and for those who do it is often for a short time.
  • Heavy alcohol use is quite common in adolescent years but not all heavy use results in a range of short-term harms.

Early Adulthood

  • Young people show evidence of positive development when they are well adjusted to society, are responsible and empathetic in their social relationships and feel satisfied with the direction that their life is taking.
  • Many young adults engage in risky driving on an occasional basis but only a small number frequently take risks when driving.  This group can be distinguished from other drivers from mid-childhood on, by their display of more difficult temperament, higher rates of behaviour problems and lower social skills.
  • Risky drivers are more likely to engage in other risky behaviours, such as antisocial behaviour and drug use.
  • Most parents share close relationships with their sons or daughters over the transition from late adolescence to early adulthood but the nature of their role changes with many moving away from providing practical support to taking on a more advisory role.

The Australian Temperament Project is a joint project between the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Royal Children's Hospital, the University of Melbourne and Deakin University.

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