Continued by Dr. Stanley Greenspan
While many people studying child development recognize that biology and upbringing work together, this recognition has not been sufficiently applied in advice to parents. I would like to propose a potentially more optimistic way of thinking about dealing with challenging children. This new approach focuses on how “nature” and “nurture” work in tandem. It recognizes that even seemingly fixed characteristics, such as a child’s tendency to be fearful when presented with a new stimulus, can be significantly altered by early, and even by later, caregiving experiences. Early care, in fact, not only can change a child’s behavior and personality, but can also change the way a child’s nervous system works.
For example, we now know that certain experiences early in life can actually determine how some cells in the nervous system will be used – for example, for hearing, vision, or for other senses. In the same way, certain experiences can enhance a child’s emotional flexibility, while others may increase rigid tendencies. We can look at a child’s emerging personality traits and pinpoint, to some degree, the types of experiences each youngster may require. Children, in this view, can change. They can become more pleasant, flexible people. They can become easier to live with – less rigid, more trusting. Life with an initially challenging or “difficult” child doesn’t have to be a perpetual battleground.
Why are some children more difficult than others? Our research, as well as research by many others, such as Jean Ayers, T. Berry Brazelton, Sybil Escalona, and Lois Murphy, has shown that children come into this world with individual differences in physical makeup. Some children, for example, have bodies that just don’t feel comfortable, and so they tend to be fussy, irritable, negative, or withdrawn. Even in the early months of life, we have found, babies can reveal unique traits in specific sensory perceptions and in the workings of their motor systems. Contrary to the belief that all of us experience basic sensations similarly, we have found that children vary considerably in how they perceive sights, sounds, touch, odors, and movement patterns.
A child may be overly sensitive and overreactive or undersensitive and underreactive to a given sense. One may be best at taking in and decoding information through a certain sense, while another may have difficulty in comprehending information through that sense. We have observed that some children are gifted in their ability to plan complex behaviors and movement patterns, while others find even the most elementary sequencing of motor acts, such as putting their fingers in their mouths, a most perplexing task.
Imagine driving a car that isn’t working well. When you step on the gas, the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn’t respond. When you blow the horn, it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers only work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else. Needless to say, you would probably be irritable!
That’s how some challenging children feel much of the time. Because their bodies may not work the way they’re supposed to, they are constantly striving to keep their “car” on the road. They may feel out of control, frustrated. Let’s look again at Jessica. As a baby, she was highly sensitive to touch, sound, and smell. Every time her mother stroked her, she squirmed and cried. It didn’t feel good. When anyone tried to brush her hair, give her a bath, or change her diaper, it hurt. She didn’t like new clothing because it felt too stiff. Wool sweaters felt too scratchy. Clothes washed with certain detergents had a chemical smell. She wanted only soft, old cotton clothes. Even sounds could be painful. Daddy’s deep, melodic voice saying, “Hey, my little angel!” sounded like a fingernail on a blackboard.
Continued in part 3
2013 Cynthia Klein, Bridges 2 Understanding, has been a Certified Parent Educator since 1994. She works with parents and organizations who want more cooperation, mutual respect and understanding between adults and children of all ages. Cynthia presents her expertise through speaking, webinars, and private parent coaching sessions. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and writes the Middle School Mom column for the Parenting on the Peninsula magazine. Contact Cynthia at bridges2understa.wpstagecoach.com, cynthia@bridges2understanding,com, or 650. 341.0779 to learn more about creating the relationship you want with your children.