Project

Challenging temperament in infancy and early childhood - More than just "difficult"?

Goal: Approximately 10% of infants can be classified as difficult (Thomas & Chess, 1977) (also irritable, fussy, temperamentally frustrated, or unsettled). Such terms refer to a constellation of traits related to difficulties with self-regulation and heightened reactivity resulting from low sensory thresholds and higher levels of emotional intensity (Rothbart, 2011). Temperamentally difficult infants typically have eating and/or sleeping problems (Novosad et al., 1999), are more reactive, and less able to calm down without assistance (Calkins et al., 2002). As a result, parents experience higher rates of stress (e.g. Oddi et al., 2013), depression, and anxiety (e.g. Britton, 2011).
Popular parenting discourse has identified various positive aspects of a challenging temperament. These constructions (e.g. active/alert, Budd, 2003; highly sensitive, Aron, 2002; high needs, Sears & Sears, 1996; spirited, Kurcinka, 1999) highlight both the challenge and the potential value of difficult traits. While parents of temperamentally-intense children report significant problems with sleep, self-soothing, and tantrum behaviors, they also report high levels of alertness, perceptiveness, empathy, and precocious verbal and/or motor ability (Kurcinka, 2011). Are there, then, potential “upsides” of difficult infant temperament that have been overlooked by the existing focus on risk factors?

Date: 25 February 2018

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Project log

Macall Gordon
added a research item
Research and parenting advice consistently endorse the use of extinction to improve sleep in infants as young as 2- to 4-months and further submits that the intervention is fast, effective, and without side effects. Parents are told that crying will be worst on the first night and will quickly be extinguished in 3-4 nights. While it is understood that difficult temperament negatively affects both sleep onset and duration, temperament is rarely considered as a factor in research outcomes or the advice that proceeds from it. Is it possible that temperament variables like reactivity, low sensory threshold, persistence, etc. result in different outcomes for both infants and parents? METHODS: Parents of infants 6-18 months; n= 404; M =11.2 mos.) and young children (2-6 years; n=452; M =43.1 mos.) were recruited to participate in an online survey. Temperament was assessed via the Difficult subscale of the Infant Characteristics Questionnaire (Bates et al., 1979). The survey inquired about both negative and positive aspects of temperament (reported elsewhere), as well as parents’ experiences with a variety of sleep variables and interventions. RESULTS: Simple linear regressions indicated that higher levels of “difficult” temperament predicted difficulties in all sleep behaviors (naptime, nighttime sleep, difficulty falling and staying asleep; all p<.001). Higher levels of difficult temperament were also predictive of parents attempting a greater number of sleep interventions with less success and experiencing much more crying than expected. DISCUSSION: Further research should examine what interventions are best suited to the aspects of temperament that make both sleep and interventions more challenging.
Macall Gordon
added 2 research items
While studies have been conducted to ascertain the experience of parenting a gifted child post-identification, less is known about the experience prior to identification, particularly in infancy. Many psychologists and psychiatrists traditionally equate giftedness with high IQ. However, giftedness is no longer seen in a unitary manner and confined to intellectual intelligence alone (Renzulli, 2011). IQ scores are now often viewed as an inadequate measure of giftedness (Renzulli, 2011) and a more robust multifaceted definition of giftedness has diversified to include atypical strengths in academic ability, such as an exceptional ability to reason and learn, leadership, artistic talent, language, memory aptitude, observational skills, humor, resiliency, and abundant creativity (e.g. Beisser, Mehring, & Sullivan, 2015; Gere, Capps, Mitchell, & Grubbs, 2009). A body of literature has noted a variety of difficult behaviors that often accompany intellectual ability, including hyperactivity, withdrawal, heightened sensitivity, insatiable curiosity, impatience, intensity, and disrupted sleep (e.g. Beljan et al., 2006; Geiger, Achermann, & Jenni, 2010). Some of these may be easily misinterpreted or overlooked as normative. Indeed, misdiagnosis of gifted children is common due to the prevalence of other neurological and mood disorders that share similar characteristics, such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) (Beljan et al., 2006). Pressure for a diagnosis can be significant when the gifted child’s maladaptive behavior increases stress at home (Webb et al., 2005). The implications of misdiagnosis or non-identification of giftedness can be significant (e.g. Martinson, 1974; Webb et al., 2005) It may be possible to detect non-intellect based markers of giftedness early in infancy. The need for less sleep, unusual alertness, and stimulation-seeking behavior are all early hallmarks pointing to giftedness (Bainbridge, 2018). The presence of early indicators and the deficit in the literature highlight the importance of identifying early markers of ability so that parents can receive support and guidance.
Approximately 10% of infants can be classified as difficult (Thomas & Chess, 1977) (also irritable, fussy, temperamentally frustrated, or unsettled). Such terms refer to a constellation of traits related to difficulties with self-regulation and heightened reactivity resulting from low sensory thresholds and higher levels of emotional intensity (Rothbart, 2011). Temperamentally difficult infants typically have eating and/or sleeping problems (Novosad et al., 1999), are more reactive, and less able to calm down without assistance (Calkins et al., 2002). As a result, parents experience higher rates of stress (e.g. Oddi et al., 2013), depression, and anxiety (e.g. Britton, 2011). Difficult temperament in infancy has also been strongly linked to later externalizing disorders, ADHD (Hemmi, Wolke, & Schneider, 2011), obesity (Anzman-Frasca, Stifter, & Birch, 2012), and later problems in school settings (Stright et al., 2008) Popular parenting discourse, however, has identified various positive aspects of a challenging temperament. These constructions (e.g. active/alert, Budd, 2003; highly sensitive, Aron, 2002; high needs, Sears & Sears, 1996; spirited, Kurcinka, 1999) highlight both the challenge and the potential value of difficult traits. A qualitative study found that, though parents of temperamentally-intense children reported significant problems with sleep, self-soothing, and tantrum behaviors, they also reported high levels of alertness, perceptiveness, empathy, and precocious verbal and/or motor ability (Kurcinka, 2011). Are there, then, potential positive aspects of difficult infant temperament that have been overlooked? Further, is it possible that the same features of sensitivity, perceptiveness, etc. underlie both the challenging and positive traits?
Macall Gordon
added an update
Significant differences found in both the infant and child samples on dimensions of self-soothing, intensity, difficulty with transitions, sleep problems, etc. However, differences were also found in domains of perceptiveness, persistence, early alertness, and emotional/sensory sensitivity. Further parental perceived competence/self-efficacy was strongly positively correlated with the degree of difficultness. This is consistent with other work that found that difficult children received a higher level of parenting skill. Qualitative data is still being analyzed, but preliminary analysis found stark differences in how parents talk about their child and their parenting. The data reveal that parents of difficult children do not perceive their behavior as uniformly negative, but understand some of the positive strengths that underlie those challenges.
 
Macall Gordon
added an update
Two versions of the survey (infants 6-18 months; children 2-6 years) have been launched via Survey Monkey. Data gathering to be completed by July 13th.
 
Macall Gordon
added an update
Survey instrument is almost ready to be launched to parents of children older than 18-months.
 
Macall Gordon
added an update
Spiritedness (conceptualized by Mary Kurcinka) is a constellation of traits that have similarities with difficultness, but are also distinct. Spiritedness appears to have both negative (intensity) and positive (perceptiveness, sensitivity) aspects. Some facets appear to overlap with early signs of giftedness as outlined by Dabrowski, as well as elements of the Highly Sensitive constructs (Aron & Aron, 1997) Current assessments of temperament in early childhood are predominantly negatively valanced and highlight a variety of longer-term negative outcomes of more challenging traits. This project is a large-scale parent survey aimed at looking at whether a construction of temperament that contains both positive and negative traits more accurately explains parents' experiences with this subset of children and whether spiritedness warrants further inquiry as distinct from a "difficult" temperament label.
 
Macall Gordon
added an update
Working on a parent survey to test out whether anecdotal reports of the elements spiritedness in infants/toddlers are experienced commonly by parents and whether these variables differ widely from non-spirited children. A secondary question is whether some of these traits of spiritedness overlap with sensory sensitivity and some of the Dabrowskian elements of Overexcitabilites.
 
Macall Gordon
added a project goal
Approximately 10% of infants can be classified as difficult (Thomas & Chess, 1977) (also irritable, fussy, temperamentally frustrated, or unsettled). Such terms refer to a constellation of traits related to difficulties with self-regulation and heightened reactivity resulting from low sensory thresholds and higher levels of emotional intensity (Rothbart, 2011). Temperamentally difficult infants typically have eating and/or sleeping problems (Novosad et al., 1999), are more reactive, and less able to calm down without assistance (Calkins et al., 2002). As a result, parents experience higher rates of stress (e.g. Oddi et al., 2013), depression, and anxiety (e.g. Britton, 2011).
Popular parenting discourse has identified various positive aspects of a challenging temperament. These constructions (e.g. active/alert, Budd, 2003; highly sensitive, Aron, 2002; high needs, Sears & Sears, 1996; spirited, Kurcinka, 1999) highlight both the challenge and the potential value of difficult traits. While parents of temperamentally-intense children report significant problems with sleep, self-soothing, and tantrum behaviors, they also report high levels of alertness, perceptiveness, empathy, and precocious verbal and/or motor ability (Kurcinka, 2011). Are there, then, potential “upsides” of difficult infant temperament that have been overlooked by the existing focus on risk factors?