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Nature vs Nurture: Raising Difficult Children
You’re Not the Cause, but You Can Be the Solution
Eight-year-old Jessica wasn’t an easy child. A bossy, fussy girl with only a few friends, she frustrated and alienated even the people who loved her most. She threw tantrums over seemingly minor issues – “These socks hurt my feet!” or “This juice tastes yucky. I won’t drink it!” She became angry when her parents tried to leave her with a babysitter, often throwing herself down on the ground and screaming furiously. At bedtime, she demanded that her parents stay with her. Her teachers reported that she seemed overwhelmed, unable to concentrate. After school, she came home complaining that “Katie and all the other girls hate me. And my teacher thinks I’m a dummy. I can just tell.” Yet Jessica was bright and articulate. At times, she could be a warm, funny girl who loved to giggle at knock-knock jokes, cuddle on the couch with her mother or father, and indulge her passionate interest in horses. But most of the time she was an unpredictable “tyrant,” said her weary parents.
The most frequent complaints I hear from parents fall into roughly five patterns, one of which is a personality like Jessica’s, often described as “fussy,” finicky, and oversensitive. The others, also described in depth here, are children who are self-absorbed, defiant, inattentive, and aggressive.
When confronted with one of these patterns, parents understandably may feel confused, overwhelmed, and, not infrequently, infuriated. What worked for an older child may not work now. Advice from friends, family, and parenting books often sounds good at first, but in the day-to-day battles it somehow loses its effectiveness. Talking out your feelings, finding compromises, and setting firm limits is easier said than done with a defiant four-year-old who has been screaming for a half-hour and screams even louder when you try to talk to him or help him quiet down.
Over the years, our thinking about children who face challenges in controlling their feelings and behavior has swung from one extreme to another. At one point, the accusing finger was directed at parents – somehow it was their fault that their children were impossible. If parents were more rigid, less rigid, more tolerant, or less tolerant (depending on the expert), then their children would be “good.” This view didn’t make sense to many parents, although it did provoke their guilt. Parents were further confused because they could see that their parenting worked for one of their children, but not for another. Many parents had an intuitive sense that one or another of their children was especially challenging, but they were stymied when it came to helping that child.
The pendulum then swung to the other extreme: experts came to believe that children are simply born this way. A great deal of recent research on “temperament” assumes that key personality traits are mostly fixed, grounded in biology. In this view, we are for the most part destined to be extroverted and confident or inhibited and introverted. Irritability, aloofness, aggressiveness, or fussiness in children is seen as part of one’s nature, and parents, while an important influence, have no choice but to learn to live with such characteristics in their offspring.
Adjusting their own behavior and trying to fit in with their child, so as not to make the situation worse, was certainly helpful, but this strategy left many families believing that they were limited in the ways they could help a child become more emotionally flexible.
Such extreme views polarized “nurture” (it’s mostly the parents’ doing) and “nature” (it’s mostly biological). Not only are such views unable to account for all behavior, they are of little use to parents.
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.
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.