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Infant Difficult Temperament: From Risk to Opportunity

For decades now it has been assumed that babies who are "difficult" to manage and especially challenging to care for--largely because they are easily distressed, cry a lot, and prove to be hard to soothe--are "at risk" of developing poorly. Theory presumed and evidence indicated that such behavioral tendencies in the developing child could elicit harsh or neglectful parenting, thereby undermining the long-term well-being of the child. But it appeared that such problematic parent-child relationships and developmental processes were most likely to emerge when the parent or family was already "at risk." In other words, when a parent was depressed, uneducated or poor, for example, the infant and older child's heightened negative emotionality and challenging behavior functioned, metaphorically, as "the straw that broke the camel's back." Notably, then, the problematic developments associated with a difficult infant tended not to emerge when parents were well resourced--economically, psychologically and behaviorally.

What was never considered in so much of the thinking about and research on risks associated with difficult temperament early in life was the possibility that the very infants who developed poorly when families lacked the resources needed to meet the challenge of caring for them might be especially likely to thrive under more supportive rearing conditions. Indeed, although it was presumed that children with difficult temperaments would be "protected" from developing poorly when family conditions were good, what was never considered was that in such situations having a difficult temperament as an infant could be an advantage, perhaps even an "opportunity" factor that afforded the child a chance to develop especially well, even better than average.

Yet that is exactly what ever more research indicates. That is, it now appears that highly negatively emotional infants are not just at heightened risk when growing up under problematic conditions, but benefit more than other children when they have the good fortunate of developing in a well-resourced and supportive family environment. In other words, such children are not just developmentally "vulnerable" to the negative effects of contextual adversity due to their early temperament but more likely than other children to be developmentally "plastic." Thus, they appear to be more affected by how they are cared for than other children--"for better and for worse." More specifically, they develop more poorly than other children when they grow up in risky family environments but do better than other children when they grow up in especially supportive or even average rearing contexts.

Why might that be the case? The truth is that we are not entirely certain. But one possibility is that infants with difficult temperaments simply have very sensitive nervous systems on which experience registers particularly strongly. In other words, the very neurological sensitivity that makes so much of early life challenging, thus resulting in lots of emotional distress, positions the child especially prone to "absorb" and be affected by the psychological and behavioral "nutrients" that supportive care provides. What this suggests is that rather than pediatricians, nurses, psychologists and social workers alerting parents that so-called "difficult" infants can be very challenging to rear, they might do well to tell them the following: You have the kind of infant who will be very much affected by the quality of parenting and care that he or she receives while growing up. Indeed, it might be helpful to think of this child as being like a canvas on which you, the artist, gets to paint a picture. Provide insensitive care and the picture will not be pretty; but provide sensitive, supportive care and it will be especially appealing. While it would be a mistake to exaggerate the effect you can have as a parent raising your challenging child, it would be useful to appreciate that your parenting will likely matter more for this highly negatively emotional child than one with a less difficult temperament.

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Jay_Belsky.jpg Jay Belsky

Jay Belsky is Robert M. and Natalie Reid Dorn Professor of Human Development at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Belsky is a nationally and internationally recognized expert in the field of child development and family studies. His areas of special expertise are the effects of day care, parent-­child relations during the infancy and early childhood years, the transition to parenthood, the etiology of child maltreatment and the evolutionary basis of parent and child functioning. He is the author of more than 400 scientific articles and chapters and of several books. Jay received his B.A. from Vassar College (1974) where he majored in Psychology and his M.S. in Child Development (1976) and Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies (1978) from Cornell University. He spent the first 21 years of his career at Penn State University, rising to the rank of Distinguished Professor before moving to London where he worked for 12 years as Professor of Psychology and founding Director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck University of London. He moved to California to assume his current position in 2011.
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