A Family Affair

Parents, Children and Society

The SECRET Life of the DIFFICULT Infant

Why highly negatively emotional infants are special--and different--from others?

 

If you have ever had a "difficult" baby, you certainly would know it. Let me add, though, that I know there are some parents who think they have such a child, but in my book actually do not. I say this because on more than one occasion I have had parents share with me how challenging their baby was to care for, yet when I was in their home, sometimes for hours, all I ever heard was what would qualify as whimpering, certainly not howling, to say nothing of the fact that the child seemed eminently consolable when some care and attention was provided. At these times I have been somewhat astonished, because if you REALLY have a difficult baby, you know the difference between what the parents in question are talking about and what a real difficult infant is like. Indeed, nothing brings this point home so much as when someone who, the first time around, thought they had a difficult baby actually encounters one upon the arrival and rearing of a second child.

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Difficult babies are difficult because they cry a lot, cry loudly, are hard to soothe, have trouble falling asleep and remaining asleep, as well as problems going back to sleep once they awaken (in the middle of the night!); they often have problems waking up, too, transitioning to a state of alertness from one of sleepiness. But despite the difficulty the infant obviously has managing or regulating, even with the care and support of others, her very young psychological, behavioral and physiological systems, the terminology of "difficult" was not coined to capture the baby's experience. Rather, it was created to reflect what the parent of such a child deals with day in and day out, night in and night out and so on and so forth, sometime seemingly interminably. And I know what I am talking about here because my first son, now 28, was an indisputably card-carrying member of the difficult-baby club. Thankfully, the same was not true of son #2.

I always say two things about having a difficult baby given my extended encounter with this kind of child. First, despite how impossible he was, I was glad that we got him rather than someone else. This was because my (then) wife and I knew something about children and were really committed to being parents. So I regarded it as somewhat of a blessing for all involved that whoever decides these things passed this one on to us rather than to someone who knew less about children to begin with or who, for whatever reason, might have proven to be less devoted parents.

The second thing I always say about having a difficult baby, especially as a developmental psychologist who knows a good deal about the causes and consequences of child maltreatment, is that I am surprised there is not more child abuse! And this is because son #1 on more than one occasion made me FEEL like throwing him across the room or out the door, hitting him, slapping him, doing something--ANYTHING!--to make him STOP what he was doing and CHANGE! Fortunately, I was able to manage these feelings (and reflect upon them) so that they never directly manifested themselves in my handling of him. But I certainly understood how someone in a much less advantaged position than myself could, in the face of these feelings of frustration and helplessness, act on them. This, by the way, is not meant to excuse child abuse or even accept it, but just explain how something that at times seems so unfathomable can occur.

THE SECRET

But my point in this blog is not to share with you my own childrearing experiences. Indeed, nothing that I say from here on is even informed by my personal life, as it derives directly from research I and others have carried out (on children who are not our own). What I want to share is what can be regarded, I think, as the unappreciated and perhaps only recently recognized SECRET of difficult infants whose defining characteristic is frequent and intense and even long lasting bouts of negative emotionality--crying, whining, flailing and the like.

So what is the secret? It is that, however difficult these little ones can be, however predisposed they seem to be toward being negatively emotional as infants, toddlers and even perhaps young children, they also seem to be the children who are most influenced by the nature and quality of parenting-or child care-they experience. That is, these children are extraordinarily malleable or plastic, being affected--for better AND for worse--by the care they encounter while growing up. Thus, they thrive and do wonderfully when cared for well, but also are the children most troubled when the care they receive is poor, meaning insensitive, harsh, unresponsive, neglectful and/or inconsistent. Other children with less difficult, challenging or negatively-emotional temperaments seem much less affected by many of the developmental experiences--in and out of the family--that most of us presume ahpe the well being of all children. The less malleable appear to be born a certain way and more or less stay that way, almost irrespective of what happens to them.

SOME EVIDENCE

Evidence to support the claims I have just made seems to be growing day by day (see http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-8721.200...). One recent study shows that when infants who proved difficult and highly negative across their first six months of life are cared for in a warm, sensitively responsive manner by their mothers during their opening years of life, they show the least behavior problems and greatest social skill of all children as first graders. Just the opposite happens, though, with children with similar temperamental proclivities who experience insensitive care; they manifest the most problems and least social competence early in their school careers. But just as interesting and important is the fact that these noteworthy effects of mothering are far less pronounced, if evident at all, in the case of children who as infants are much less difficult (http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1469-7610.200...).

More evidence documenting the heightened susceptibility of negatively-emotional infants and toddlers to the rearing they experience comes from research on fathering and how it affects what looks like honesty and dishonesty at a very young age. In this work which investigated whether 38-month olds followed the rules of a simple game when they thought no one was watching, it was found that harsh, power-assertive discipline experienced at age 15 months predicted cheating in a game two years later, whereas more sensitive and supportive approaches to discipline fostered the most rule-governed behavior. Of critical importance, though, is the fact this apparent influence of fathering on child development held only for children who manifested high levels of fear and thus negative emotion at age 15 months; children who showed little fear at this young age were virtually unaffected by the quality of fathering they received (http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2006-23020...).

CONCLUSION

For a long time, difficult babies have gotten a bad rap. And one reason for this is because when children start showing up in clinics at age 3, 4, 5 or 6, with parents complaining that the child is out of control, one of the first questions asked is "how long has the child been like this?" And, almost without exception, the answer is, "ever since he was born!" So, from this perspective of "looking back" to see where a child's present difficulties--at age 3, 4, 5 or 6--come from, it is easy to see why many conclude that problems controlling emotions and behavior at this still young age are inborn and a result of genetics.

But guess who never shows up at the clinic and who are thus never considered when it comes time to draw these "looking back" conclusions about the origins or causes of many emotional and behavioral disturbances in development? The many other so-called difficult babies! That is, the ones who, because of skilled parenting and/or high-quality child care or some other environmental source of support, have developed the capacity to regulate and manage their emotions and, thereby, control their behavior and thus develop the many competencies they now possess. Recall, in this regard, the previously mentioned first graders who started life with difficult temperaments, encountered warm, sensitive, responsive mothering and grew up to be the least troubled and most socially competent children.

This kind of development does not take place overnight, but for those who struggle--and a struggle it is--with the challenge of coping with a highly negative infant, the payoff can be substantial. Doing one's best to manage one's own temper, frustration and exhaustion, so as to provide care that is loving, responsive, warm and, when the time comes during the toddler and preschool years, demanding, consistent and firm, without being hostile or rejecting, often yields a child who is the farthest thing possible from the difficult baby who ends up in the child or family therapist's office.

 

Jay Belsky is Director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues and Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck University of London. more...

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