The Difficult Child

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The scene is all too familiar: A howling red-faced child on the floor of a supermarket with limbs flailing and tears flowing. It is obvious that this child is unhappy and many would assess this situation as a case of permissive parents unable (or unwilling) to control the little “brat’s” ill-mannered tantrums. However, the cause behind the child’s meltdown might not easily be categorized as poor parenting or a spoiled child. The imploding child on the supermarket floor might possess what child development specialists term a “difficult temperament.”

The nature-versus-nurture theories have been debated for years by parents and child development professionals. One side posits that children enter this world as blank slates; their personalities shaped primarily by family, peers and other environmental components (the nurture factor). Conversely, the other position believes that children’s personalities and behaviors are innate (nature). In the 1950s, New York University (NYU) child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas launched a study to examine temperamental differences and the possible causes. Their research project, the New York Longitudinal Study, followed 130 individuals from infancy through young adulthood. Chess and Thomas found that distinct temperament qualities could be distinguished in early infancy, indicating that the nature half of the “nature versus nurture” theory was in play.However, they also determined that children’s responses to their environments (the nurture) contribute to behaviors as well. The researchers cited one particular set of traits as temperamentally difficult. Chess and Thomas postulated that these children possess normal intelligence, but do not respond to traditional child rearing techniques (such as rewards for good behavior or time-outs for misbehaving).

Here are nine temperamental traits of the difficult child:

• A high level of activity, a dislike of confinement and a penchant for always “getting into things.”
• Easily distracted and an inability to pay attention to tasks that the child does not find engaging.
• An ultra-focused persistence in their requests and a tending to tasks of interest.
• Difficulty adapting to change, with the child locking into certain preferences for food, clothing, and the way things are done (schedules, driving routes, etc.).
• A tendency to be shy around new people and situations.
• Expresses emotions (both positive and negative) intensely.
• Unpredictable in frequency of patterns of mood, hunger, or scheduling (particularly sleep).
• Easily over stimulated by sounds, smells, tastes, temperature and textures.
• A general predisposition toward serious or cranky moods.

Temperamentally difficult children struggle to maintain an inner equilibrium, and when pressured into acting against their innate traits, a power struggle ensues with the child devolving into emotional and physical “meltdowns.” Parents of these children have generally tried all reasonable methods of child rearing with little to no success.

It can sometimes be difficult to identify temperamentally difficult children. Some children who exhibit these behaviors may be emotionally or cognitively impaired, have a developmental disorder, such as autism or other learning disabilities. Recent changes at school or home, such as a new baby, divorce or new teacher may also cause children to act out. Children in the “terrible twos and threes” stage can also generally be ruled out if their difficult natures have not been present since birth.

Temperamentally difficult children can mature into capable innate pace. Lots understanding and patience from their parents and the other adults in their lives will lessen the stress these children experience — they need to feel emotionally and physically safe in a confusing world that doesn’t connect well with their innate sense of being.

– Lenore Colacion Hayes, M.S.

This article was originally published in the Gazette Newspapers, Long Beach, CA; October 2006.