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