The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why one child can be more ‘difficult’ than another

(The Washington Post/Prisma filter/iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

Q: Is there an understanding in early-childhood circles about why some babies and toddlers are more difficult than others? Despite similar parenting styles, I see two very different children in my nanny share. One can more or less moderate her emotions, and the other struggles with that; she cries easily and for long periods of time when she doesn't get what she wants, and she has been difficult since she was a baby. Is it just luck of the draw? Is there any other science we know about?

A: This question is a doozy. Why are some babies and toddlers more difficult than others? How do we define “difficult,” as well as “difficult” for whom, and why? I have worked with hundreds of parents, and I can tell you that some kids are born more intense. I use the word “intense,” because the word “difficult” is pejorative and not very descriptive. So, why are some kids more intense than others?

To begin, we need to understand the idea of temperament. Temperament is a rating scale that assesses a child’s early-appearing variation in emotional responses and reaction to the environment. Is your baby quick to be active? Is your child regular in routine? Quick to warm up to new people and places?

Temperament has long been considered to be a purely genetic and static concept, meaning your child is born and will stay this way. But longitudinal twin, adoption and sibling studies are showing that temperament is more malleable than previously believed. We could dive deep into these studies, but long story short: A baby is born who they are. They are capable of change throughout their development, and they are deeply affected by parenting styles.

So when you ask, “Is it just luck of the draw?” The answer is both yes and no.

The most important takeaway of this discussion is that yes, a child can be born to a warm, loving parent and still be avoidant and difficult to soothe. This is hard, because the parent often feels as if they are failing or doing something wrong, when in fact, this is not the case. Furthermore, a “difficult” child can change because of a warm, strongly attached parenting style. Will this child be a completely different person, and not be intense at all? No, but the child can exhibit more signs of ease and adaptability with gentle parenting styles and strong attachment.

Alternatively, a difficult or moderately difficult child will worsen under the “tough love” parent. This is the parent who withholds affection and uses punitive measures to get desired behaviors from children. Sperm meets egg and a human is set up to grow, but the science shows that our environments — and the plasticity of our brains — can have a huge effect on our temperament.

Read the studies; the results are captivating and will keep changing.

More from Lifestyle:

Should I be giving my little girl a bigger dose of reality about the pandemic?

My 2-year-old hits me. How can I respond better?

My daughter’s remote kindergarten teacher taught me to be a better mom

Covid-19 and child care: What the latest research says

Loading...