So what happens to those “difficult” babies–the ones whose sensitive nervous systems make them high-energy, super-focused, sleepless and irritable compared with other infants? A new study suggests that these babies may be facing a “high risk, high reward” future-they either end up doing great or struggling with emotional and behavioral problems. The deciding factor is how they’re parented.
It’s nice that psychologists no longer debate whether, when it comes to temperament, we are born that way (we are). But temperament isn’t destiny. Researchers from Brown University and the University of Oregon assessed the nervous systems of 73, 7-month-old babies from extremely low-income families. To gauge each baby’s temperament, the researchers measured the infants’ heart rates while they breathed in and then out. On one end of the sensitivity scale were babies who were very alert and focused on their environment and also irritable and fussy in the face of change. At the other end were calm babies who were less focused on their environment and also less disturbed by disruptions. A year later the researchers re-evaluated the now toddlers, assessing them for anxiety and aggression. All of these babies were considered at risk for problem behaviors, due to their environment. But some proved more resilient than others. The sensitive babies either had the least anxiety and aggression, or the most. (The results for the calmer kids were sandwiched in between.) The determining factor in how these sensitive kids fared was the quality of their connection with their mother, which the researchers assessed through a very common psychological experiment called the “strange situation.” First, the mom and toddler were put in a room the child had never seen before. After they settled in, Mom briefly left. In most cases, the sensitive tots started to cry. Then the researchers observed how quickly the children calmed down once Mom returned. If Mom’s reappearance relaxed the toddler, that indicated a positive mother-child attachment that helped the child to feel safe in the face of a troubling environment. But if a tot only calmed down after a long while, or not at all, this indicated that interactions with Mom weren’t helping this child cope.
Turns out the sensitive babies who had a strong attachment to their mother had the lowest levels of aggression and anxiety compared with all the babies. “Those were the kids that were doing the best — the absolute best — of all of the kids in our sample, and they had far and away the lowest reported problem behaviors,” said researcher Jeffrey Measelle in an interview with National Public Radio. The outcomes for the calmer kids were not as extreme, no matter how they were parented. In fact, Measelle says the sensitive kids who had secure attachments “were looking a lot better behaviorally than a lot of babies growing up in middle class and advantaged samples.”
What does it mean? Well, the study affirms that for kids living in poverty, the quality of parenting is a significant factor in whether they will thrive despite their troubled environment. And, it underlines that it’s every child’s birthright to be loved and to feel safe and wanted (no matter how much they cry or keep their parents up at night!).