Differences from Birth: Responding to the Temperamentally Difficult Child
The inborn temperament of children impacts on both their development and the manner in which adults respond to them. Influential researchers of temperament, psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas and their colleagues identified nine characteristics of temperament in infants, and based upon these nine characteristics they labeled three kinds of infants, the "easy" child; the "slow-to-warm-up," cautious, or shy child; and the "difficult" child. In this article, I will discuss principles for relating to the temperamentally difficult youngster.
To begin, I should note that a number of individuals have taken issue with the label "difficult," believing that it carries with it a negative connotation that children do not deserve. As alternatives they have offered more positive descriptions such as "challenging" or "spirited." Certainly, the label we place on children influences the ways in which we understand and respond to their behaviors. To view children as challenging or spirited has an optimistic and hopeful flavor, which may help parents and other caregivers respond to these youngsters in a more caring, empathic, effective manner. From my earlier articles about "stress hardiness," I tend to use the word "challenge" in my work since one of the features of individuals who are less stressed is that they view difficult situations as challenges to master rather than as stressors to avoid.
My use of the word "difficult" is based on the label first used by Chess and Thomas and also by psychiatrist Stanley Turecki in his book "The Difficult Child." The reality is that the behaviors of these youngsters do present difficulties to those with whom they interact, but the adults who will have most success in reaching and teaching these youngsters possess a more optimistic outlook of their future.
What are these difficult, challenging, frustrating behaviors? I described several of these features, which are also captured in Turecki’s book "The Difficult Child," in Chess and Thomas’s "Know Your Child," and in "The Explosive Child" by my friend and colleague psychologist Ross Greene. The reader may also wish to review Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s excellent book "Raising Your Spirited Child," which places the temperamental features of the so-called "difficult" child in a more favorable light and emphasizes how we can accommodate to the unique make-up of spirited youngsters.
Temperamentally difficult children demonstrate intense reactions and overreactions so that even seemingly small upsets may result in rage, tantrums, and meltdowns. Many of these children experience changes in routine or new situations with a great deal of anxiety, almost as if they were being asked to climb Mt. Everest without the appropriate equipment or training. Given their rigid, inflexible style, difficult children become fearful and angry when confronted with unplanned or spontaneous activities. I have worked with some difficult children who could not fall asleep until they knew the next day’s schedule and/or in the morning asked their parents repeatedly what was to transpire during the day. Not surprisingly, transitions or moving from one activity to the next present major hurdles to these youngsters. A very common problem I hear from teachers about their students with difficult temperaments is that these students find transitions (e.g., going from one subject matter to another or one activity to another or one room to another) problematic; equally stressful for many of these students are less structured activities such as recess or lunch.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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