I see a great adult in the future — but getting there is….umm.
Sometimes he’s very sweet… Other times, I’m pretty sure he’s been
possessed by a demon.
She’s going to be amazing…if I can survive childhood.
The research on temperament suggests that about 10% of infants can be classified as “difficult.” (In the real world, this number is likely higher.) These children seem to be more reactive, more intense, and have greater difficulty calming down without help. Other terms that researchers use include irritable, fussy, unsettled. In fact, researchers have linked this temperament type to all kinds of rough outcomes: behavioral problems, parental depression, ADHD.
What the research appears to have overlooked is the possibility that there’s good stuff mixed in with all of the challenges, and more than that, that the good stuff may be what’s causing the difficult behaviors. Focusing only on the challenging aspects of this temperament style ignores the “good stuff,” the secret superpowers that are hiding right under the meltdowns and lack of sleep.
A variety of parenting authors like Mary Sheedy Kurcincka (Raising Your Spirited Child), Elaine Aron (The Highly Sensitive Child), Dr. William Sears (The Fussy Baby Book), and others point to the possibility that the challenging behaviors are just the outward manifestation of sensitivity and attunement to both the inner and outer world. Biologists investigating the underlying physiology of temperament have found that children come into the world with a different neurological “set point” that causes them to respond more strongly to…well, just about everything.
The research-y term for this is differential susceptibility to context — essentially, what barely registers for an easygoing child can really throw a more reactive, sensitive one. This research distinguishes between children they call dandelions, who can do well in a wide variety of environments, and orchids, who need a very specific environment in order to survive; however, if they get that environment, they really, really thrive.
I recently conducted a survey of 850 parents to find out if there were “upsides” to what researchers would call a “difficult temperament.” The data showed that temperamental difficulty was indeed strongly correlated with emotional intensity, difficulty with self-regulation, and sleep difficulties (no big surprise there). But these same children also showed a higher level of certain abilities or skills like perceptiveness, persistence, awareness of fairness/ethical behavior, empathy, sensory sensitivity/awareness, and assertiveness. It’s possible that the same traits that present such challenges for parents in the early years are actually big strengths trying to exist in little bodies.
Challenging trait: Strong-willed/Stubborn
Secret Superpower Part 1: Persistence.
Spirited/intense children will push every limit, test every rule. If they want something, they cannot be put off with an alternative. They want what they want, and they will not take “no” for an answer. However, if you project into the future, we want our teenagers or young adults to be persistent — to fight for what they want, to stand up for themselves, to push back against peer pressure. It’s just not super convenient when they’re little and you just want them to stop playing with your phone or to go to sleep without an hour of rocking.
Secret Superpower Part 2: Perceptiveness.
Parents of these children will say, “Nothing gets by him/her.” They notice everything, from subtle social cues to even minor deviations from routine. Either the change really throws them, or they pick up on the wobble in your resolve. They will hold you to any deviation from a regular routine. “Just this once” becomes “every time” and suddenly, you’re reading six books before bed instead of just the one.
Challenging trait: Meltdowns and poor self-soothing skills
Secret Superpower: BIG feelings (and lots of them).
These children just seem to feel everything more deeply and experience the world more intensely: their highs are really high, and their lows are really low. Very little just “rolls off their back.” Everything is a big deal.
It may seem like they have terrible self-soothing skills, but it’s possible that they just have bigger feelings to manage. The usual skills just won’t cut it. It’s like asking a new driver to get behind the wheel of a high-powered race car. New drivers may know the basics of driving, but they don’t have the skills to drive that car.
Challenging trait: Meltdowns and sleep problems
Secret Superpower: Sensory sensitivity
Intense/sensitive spitfires have a lower threshold for taking in sensory, visual, auditory and other stimuli. This means they’re potentially taking in more information per unit of time and are more affected by it. They are typically highly attuned to their environment, and they have difficulty buffering anything out. It’s like they’re taking in a tidal wave of information and don’t know how to turn it off. It makes sense that this might result in emotional or sensory overload and meltdown. It may take way less input for them to be over-stimulated and overwhelmed — but under that overwhelm is a brain that is learning. These children may notice patterns or subtleties in ways that surprise you.
Challenging trait: Inability to play on their own
Secret Superpower: Preference for interaction and engagement
There seems to be a link between the spirited/intense temperament style and a high desire for interaction. Parents report that their child prefers them to toys and once they start talking, well, buckle up. A high desire for interaction can be exhausting for parents but imagine how much your child is learning.
It’s so easy to focus on the hard parts of parenting a child who is “extra” (intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent). It’s not for the faint of heart, for sure; but entertaining the notion that each of these challenges has a silver lining — may help you cope with the tsunami that is parenting your personal force of nature.