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Stuart Shanker D.Phil.
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Reframing Temperament: “Difficult” vs. “Stressed”

Parents need to understand what their child’s limbic system is “telling” them.

For some time now I’ve been telling parents and educators that there’s no such thing as a bad kid. It’s a point that everyone seems to instantly get. But aren’t there some children who are at a much higher risk of becoming a bad kid? Children that are a “handful” from the moment they pop out of the womb: fearful or irritable, hard to settle or soothe? Children born with a difficult temperament that strongly influences the development of their personality?

Stock photo/Shutterstock
Source: Stock photo/Shutterstock

There is indeed research showing that children’s temperament is a strong predictor of their subsequent personality. For example, Caspi and Silva showed that 3 year-olds who are highly reactive tend to score high on impulsivity and aggression when they’re teens; toddlers who are reserved score low on social effectiveness when they’re 18; well-adjusted children turn out to be well-adjusted teens [] But does a child’s temperament set him on a path that he ends up following in life, almost willy-nilly – i.e., regardless of what he or we might “want or will.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with determinist thinking. Anything I’ve ever done has been driven by the basic belief that our future isn’t carved in stone. A child’s personality is not written in his genes, nor in gene-environment interactions. It’s not written anywhere: not even in his temperament.

But then, what of the fact that very young infants display distinctive temperaments, which can profoundly impact how they engage with us and how we interact with them? Or that we see similar temperaments in identical twins, regardless of their upbringing? Or that it is so difficult to change a child’s temperament?

Self-Reg treats these questions, not as rhetorical, but as raising critical research issues. And the problem with determinist thinking is that it closes the door on such questions. It leads to the conclusion: If a child is born irritable and fussy then parents must deal with as best they can. If the child turns out impulsive or aggressive, it’s because his parents failed to manage him properly when he was a “difficult” baby and then teach him self-control. There’s a tendency for all of us to think this way, even about our own child. But how differently would we parent if freed from this deterministic outlook?

Self-Reg worries just as much about describing an infant as “difficult” as describing an older child as “bad.” The point is that an infant’s “difficult” behaviours need to be reframed every bit as much as what gets mistakenly labelled as “misbehaviour” in a child or teen. That doesn’t mean trying to refute all the research that has accumulated over the past 60 years on “difficult” versus “easy” babies, but rather, seeing this research in a new light [Becoming Who We Are].

The starting-point is to recognize that a newborn must deal with powerful stressors, internal as well as external [Maurer]. The newborn’s reactions manifest how her nervous system is coping with this stress load. And something incredibly important happens: a behavioural pattern quickly forms. The origins of this pattern may have started even before the moment of birth, as the womb is not a stress-free environment but rather, a stress-reduced environment. And for some foetuses the stress (e.g., chemical, hormonal) is too high and impinges on the wiring of the stress-reactivity system.

What Steve Porges has shown in meticulous physiological detail is how the better a newborn is able to recover from stresses – e.g., temperature, sounds, odours, tactile, visual and social stimuli, signals from internal receptors – the better she settles into rhythmic cycles (eating, sleeping, digesting, eliminating, thermo-regulation, social behaviour). Such rhythmicity further enhances the baby’s capacity to deal with new stresses. These babies require less soothing, they laugh and smile more, orient more, look longer at novel visual stimuli, demonstrate more approach behaviours and are better at self-soothing [Porges].

Too much stress, whatever the cause, and recovery is compromised. Babies who find it hard to replenish their energy have problems with motor control, approach/withdrawal, expressing emotion, communication, and sustaining attention. They have poor rhythmicity in one or more domains; problems with digestion, sleep, and social interaction [Porges]. And the behaviour patterns that we classify as “difficult” become entrenched: not inalterable, but something of a default response in moments of high stress.

What is happening here is that the baby’s limbic system is forming expectations and adopting defensive strategies. The “avoidant” baby isn’t that way because of a genetic aversion to social interaction: he responds that way because his limbic system “remembers” what happened before and “anticipates” that an experience is going to be aversive. From the perspective of Self-Reg, what matters most is how he shows us what he finds overly stressful.

We once had a family come to see us because their 7-month-old son would burst into tears the moment he saw his grandmother. Everyone was distressed by this: especially Granny, who told us that “something must be wrong with this boy because all my other grandchildren adore me.” But the problem was that this baby was very sensitive to social stimuli, and Granny would lean into his bassinet, vocalizing and gesturing too animatedly for him. The association was so strong that the mere sight of his grandmother was enough to set him off: a behaviour that was part distress and in no small part communicative.

A baby’s limbic stress-awareness is an important factor in the forces shaping the development of personality. These forces are not simply biological. The basic principle of Self-Reg is that the fundamental unit of development is the Dyad – caregiver and infant – and not an isolated child. What “difficult” really refers to is the stress that we experience when trying to regulate a child that is highly reactive.

What a case like the above shows us is that just as important as the biological reasons why the baby is so reactive to social stimuli is how the caregiver responds to these sensitivities: e.g., whether she is calm or anxious; stays present or flees from the situation (emotionally, if not physically); tailors her responses or is overly intrusive; is resourceful or feels helpless; is patient and reflective or flustered and bewildered [Beebe].

In other words, how we respond to an infant’s stress-behaviours is critical, not just in the formation of personality, but even that of temperament. So much more is involved here than simply being a “sensitive caregiver,” adjusting one’s parenting style to a baby’s individual differences. And here is where Self-Reg is vital. Parents need to recognize the signs of when their baby is over-stressed; figure out what the stressors are and how they can be reduced; discover what their baby finds soothing; and learn how to stay calm through all this themselves.

In other words, parents need to understand what their child’s limbic system is “telling” them. And when they’re able, children and teens need to do the same. But for this to be possible, they need to pay attention to what their limbic system is “saying.” In this way, children and teens can become active participants in the development of their personality, rather than feeling like an observer watching some predetermined event unfold.

This is ultimately the reason why it is so important to reframe the concept of temperament: in so doing, we transform it from a descriptor into a heuristic [Heuristics]. Classifying a baby’s temperament is a bit like one of those treasure maps with an “X” that marks that spot. That is ultimately what happens when we reframe temperament: we realize that there are incredible self-regulation riches waiting to be unearthed, once we remove the determinist blinders that stop us from digging deeper.

About the Author
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University and author of Self-Reg and Calm, Alert and Learning.

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