Category Archives: Devevelopment in general

Flexibility in parent-child relationships

OK, first off, we're on with the parenting challenge thingy! If you don't know what I'm talking about, read my last post
and join us! I think it would probably work best if I post a
description of a parenting approach/discipline method every Monday (and
you can forgive me if I mess up and sometimes post on Tuesday,
especially on long weekends and such). Then we'll all have that week to
try something new with our kids. Throughout the week, you all can come
back to that Monday post and leave comments about how things are going,
questions about the approach, or rants about how sucky it all went and
who the hell do I think I am ruining your family life. I'm going to do
my best to take a more gist-like approach: I'll describe a method and
then give you my take on how it might be adapted to different ages
and/or different scenarios. I'll also try to supplement the description
of the method with some empirical studies or reviews of research that
provide some support for these various methods, either in the same post
or subsequent ones during the week. And I just want to be very clear:
many of these "approaches" are going to be RIDICULOUSLY simple things
that may seem TOO simplistic. The idea isn't going to be that any ONE
of these approaches are going to help you with EVERY one of your
discipline or parenting challenges. They'll just be one more little
tool you can add to your parenting toolbox (ugh… can that metaphor
be any more overused? Sorry, but I'm too brain dead to come up with
something more witty).

Now, on to today's topic: Flexibility. A few of you asked to talk
more about this idea. Given it's one of my main areas of research,
goodness knows I can ramble on and on about this topic. It CONSUMES me.

I've studied a bunch of parent-child relationships, both "healthy" ones and those that were in some serious trouble. For the latter group, I've worked with agencies that provide interventions for families with children who have "clinically-elevated" levels of aggression and depression (with a large does of anxiety as well). As part of my work (a review is in this paper), I've tried to identify the differences between these more healthy parent-child relationships and the ones that are more distressed. One of the most ubiquitous findings that keeps coming up, over and over, is the importance of flexibility in parent-child relationships. My thinking started way back, on the more theoretical level, thinking about evolutionary advantage. In much of evolutionary theory and, in particular, evolutionary psychology, organisms are considered optimally healthy when they can readily adapt to changes in their environmental context. Similarly (and with a whole lot more academic arm-waving), we can think of interpersonal interactions as being optimally functioning when they are flexible or able to adjust to any new challenge that might arise. In contrast, when relationships or interaction patterns are "rigid" or repeated no matter what the context might throw at them, problems seem to come up.

So how on earth would you test such an assumption? I've run a few studies that have looked at flexibility (both in parent-child and peer relationships). There's a few ways we've looked at this, but one is to look at troubled parent-child relationships and look at the parent-child interaction patterns that have developed over time. We've observed (literally, videotaped) hundreds of parents and their healthy or more troubled children interacting with each other while they engaged in different types of activities (for example, they are asked to play some board games, try to problem-solve a conflict they identified, clean up a mess, share a snack and so on). In one study, we videotaped these interactions and found that children with elevated levels of aggression, depression and anxiety are indeed more rigid in their interaction patterns with their parents. I'll spare you the analytic models we ran and skip to the gist of the findings: Instead of expressing many kinds of emotions, and controlling those emotions when the situational demands changed, aggressive and depressed/anxious children and their parents remained stuck in one or very few emotional states.  For example, it was common for families to become angry in the problem-solving interaction and then remain angry when asked to change activities (for instance, play a game).  BUT! it was just as common for these families to show neutral or closed emotional states across all activities. Healthy family often got angry, it's not that they never showed negative stuff at all, it's just that they shifted in and out of these emotional states as their context changed. The inability to experience a range of emotional states as the context shifted was the strongest predictor of future problematic behaviour, more so than just how much negativity parents or children shared with each other (the predictions, in one study, went from 4.5 years old to about 6 years old).

Why would it be important for a child’s healthy development that family members display a variety of emotional states with one another?  We might expect that a task such as conflict-resolution would produce anger and frustration in most families. Playing a game or sharing a snack are more likely to elicit positive emotions.  Sometimes it's appropriate to be anxious and hesitant, other times to be excited and spontaneous. My growing thoughts about these data are that, without the opportunity to experience a range of emotional states in family interactions, children don't get to develop an adequate ability to regulate (i.e., adjust, control) their emotions. They become entrenched in particular emotional habits that feel inevitable, and they lack the skills for shifting from one state to another when it might be advantageous to do so.

I can go on and on (oh! I will, in another post, because I have some cool intervention data that shows that when families are benefiting from treatment, they're becoming MORE FLEXIBLE. Yes, yes, I am indeed a little tickled by those findings. But I'll shut up now). And I can include a trillion caveats to this research including that these findings may not hold for all cultures, all age groups, different socio-economic backgrounds, and so on. But to tell you the truth, I actually think flexibility in parent-child interactions / relationships IS crucial across all these domains… I just don't have the data.

So I'll leave it at that for now, since I've rattled on enough, and I'll ask you what you think… Do you think that flexibility, rather than the altogether lack of negativity (anger, sadness), is as important as I do? Are there cases in which you think it isn't so important? Does this ring true for you? How about the way you were parented… would you characterize your childhood relationship with your parents as "flexible?"

More Tidbits on Memory…and a Clip You Can Watch WITH Your Kids

Finger w-1.string 
 So many fantastic thoughts and comments lately. What a great readership! Some really interesting questions asked/points raised about memory. They jogged my own noggin' (noticeably on the decline in recent years) of a few related studies. Here are the nutshell versions:

1. One of the ways researchers get memory in people of all ages is to compare how easy it is to learn something for the first time, compared to when we have to learn it again. For example, in lots of traditional memory studies with adults, the researchers gave their participants lists of words or word pairs (sock-orange) and looked at how long it took to learn them. Then after some substantial delay, when the participants no longer consciously remembered the list, they brought them back and looked at how long it took them to learn the same list to perfect recall again. The difference in the time it took at time 1 and time 2 is termed "savings" which basically shows that you unconsciously retained or REMEMBERED some of the list. For more on this idea and the guy behind it try here

Of course, we're not going to give a baby a list of words to learn, but just think of the task in terms of something that babies CAN do. For example, in one study infants of just a few months were put in a crib and their leg was connected to a string (such as by a a loop around their ankle). The point was to see how long it took the baby to figure out that if they kicked that leg vigorously, something fun would happen (e.g. a clown doll would appear, or they'd hear a funny sound, the lights would flash etc.). Then after a delay, they brought the babies back and put them in the same crib, same set-up etc. If they got the "leg kick = funny event" link more quickly, the researchers would conclude that the babies REMEMBERED what they needed to do. Oh there's always a way to get inside that amazing baby head…

2.  The stuff you have to remember to do in future – take your medicine at 2pm, TAKE A HOLIDAY GIFT IN FOR YOUR CHILD'S TEACHER BEFORE THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL (I'm just sayin'…) – is called prospective memory (as opposed to retrospective memory, for things in the past). It's one of the first things to go when you get older. That's your head's up. 

3.  Yes, there is such a thing as photographic memory – when you can picture in your mind the actual material you want to remember, in the place where you first learned it. That's as in, you are writing an exam and you can picture in your head the page in the text book where you read it AND YOU CAN SCAN THAT PAGE TO FIND WHAT YOU ARE AFTER. It's not exactly common. Usually fades by later childhood (11 or so). Any takers?  Did any of you do this?  I definitely relied on this in school, even later on, but it got way, way harder as the years went by. I'm not sure how good a measure of photographic memory this is…but if you have a few minutes on your hands (ha ha ha…) or insomnia, Try this

4.  Another favourite line of research (honestly, can I really call it a fave when there are so many?) specifically targets childhood amnesia. Here's a link to the primary researcher's homepage if you want to have a browse. I cannot help but highlight one of her coolest recent findings. Ya know how excited I get about these things…

The researchers visited young children (about 2-3 years of age) in their homes and taught them a novel event. A machine would actually "shrink" a toy you put inside it. Read: Child puts a big toy in the front opening of the machine, then closes the door. Some flashing lights and machine like sounds go off, then they open door and find a miniature version of the toy inside. Yes, of course, it's been replaced with the mini one by way of the back door and another researcher or something, but boy do they go for it!  It's amazing!!!. This all happens at an age when language is fairly limited but then develops amazingly quickly. They know because they actually measure the children's language skills. 

Then after 6 months or 1 year, they go back to visit the same children and basically probe to see if they remember what happened on that first visit, now "ages" ago as far as they are concerned. The probing includes asking them to talk about it (verbal measure), asking them to pick out pictures of e.g. some of the toys they shrunk (visual recognition) and asking them if they remember how to work the machine (behavioural re-enactment). And oh yes, they measure their language skills again. Get this: Even though children remember what happened (as shown by their performance on the visual recognition and behavioural measures – both non-verbal), their memories are limited to the vocabulary they had AT THE TIME the shrinking machine thing took place. That is, even though they now had WAY better vocabularies, they described the event only in terms of the language they had AT THE TIME THEY EXPERIENCED IT!  This suggests of course that our so-called infantile amnesia is linked to our limited capacity to code or store our experiences in words when our vocabularies are so very limited. Note that as the children had good non-verbal memory of the event, they clearly registered it. It's just that they were limited in their ability to access those memories verbally. So perhaps this helps to explain why we later can no longer access those early memories and integrate them into our autobiographical memories when we are older and rely more on storing and accessing memories verbally. Hmmm…

6. Finally, to help keep your internet-using guilt at bay and to end the week on a lighter note, here's a fun clip on memory that you can actually watch WITH your kids! 

Now just remember to watch it. Good weekend.


I’m leaving on a jet plane, my kids will never be the same again…

 I'm out of the country this week so I've got a few posts that will go up automatically for the next few days. As you'll see, it seems like I couldn't get my head around only one theme this week — probably has a lot to do with how completely out of control my life feels right now. It's all good: I'm LOVING being with my kids these days (they'll be 4 in March and there's just something about this age that seems to groove with my parenting style), I'm crazy-busy at work with some great projects, and I'm traveling overseas to work with fabulous people. Each one of these things seems great on its own, it's the combination / balance that I'm having a problem with. Yes, I know this isn't a personal blog, apparently I just need to get those excuses out. And it sets up the premise for today's post and tomorrow's follow-up…

I thought I'd post some thoughts about longer separations from our children. I don't mean leaving your child for a few hours or for the evening. I'm talking for a couple of days or longer. We've had two readers send questions about this issue, the gist of which boiled down to two main concerns: (1)  Are there better and worst ages to leave your child for a few days/weeks? and (2) What can I do to make the separation more bearable for my child?

Since my kids turned one and I returned to work full time, I've thought (and freaked the freak out) about these questions a lot. I've had to leave my kids for 2-6 days at one time about twice per year for business trips. Leading up to these trips, I invariably get very anxious about how my boys will cope. I try to remind myself that they're with their father, that he is an equal partner in this parenting gig, that they love him equally and need him equally. But who am I kidding? There's no doubt about the equal love, but the attachment is different and when they get tired, hungry, hurt, frustrated, or challenged in other ways, they want mommy (and I fully recognize this isn't the case for all family situations). But we do what we have to do — some of us have little choice but to leave our kids for a few days and many of us actually think it's healthy to go away for a weekend or so without the kids (count me in both groups). 

So… are there better and worst ages to leave your kids for a while? For those of you who have been following this blog for longer than a couple of weeks, you'll probably have a good guess at my answer. Yes, I DO think there are certain stages that will be harder than others for your children to deal with separations. Those stages happen to correspond to the sensitive windows in development that I spent 6 months talking about in terms of sleep training children. The same stages that are particularly difficult for sleep training are also generally difficult for ANY transition, especially those that have to do with separations. Before the age of about 8 months or so, I actually think these separations are not too bad for babies (I suspect they're much harder on moms). They haven't yet reached the big 8 – 11 month transition that will usher in a sudden burst in working memory and allow the child to understand that "out of sight is NOT out of mind." Even when mom is not in the room, she's "out there" somewhere… As I've written at length, this ability to keep mom in mind even when she's not present results in the onset of full-blown separation anxiety — NOT a time when you first want to take off on your child for days on end. Another stage you may want to avoid leaving for extended trips is the 18-21 month period. This is a DOOZY (and, of course, it happens to be one of the ages when I DID have to leave my boys… I remember the weeping phone calls to this day). I won't get into all the MANY, MANY reasons why this stage is considered the most dramatic transition period in early childhood… you can read about all the gory details here.  Suffice it to say that children are really GETTING social interactions in a way that they weren't able to before — "real" language takes off, they understand simple rules and family members' roles and they get the idea that they are expected to follow rules and respect those family roles. Most parents report this stage as the most intense emotional period in their child's life, fraught with buckets of neediness, moodiness, tantrums, meltdowns, and general crazed vulnerability (there's lots of research to back this up, reviewed in our book). Leaving your children for extended periods during this phase may heighten their sense of vulnerability and neediness and it may take a while before you child "forgives" you for leaving, once you are back. 

The other stages to watch out for are the 2.5 to 3 year old period and the 3.5 to 4 year old stage. Different developmental issues are at play at each of these various sensitive periods, but the general rationale for avoiding long-term separations during these phases are the same: these are developmental transitions during which children are more emotionally vulnerable, more attuned to separations and their meaning, and they're in need of more reassurance and support than at other more stable periods.

Ruby's jetplaneA couple of extra considerations: (1) Kids will likely be more vulnerable at the beginning of these sensitive periods, when new cognitive acquisitions are just emerging and they're coping with this novelty; the more into the stage they are, the more likely it is that they've started to learn to cope with their new sense of the world (and the accompanying new skills). Or at least that's what I'm telling myself, as my kids round the corner of a sensitive stage (3.5 – 4 years old) and I'm gallivanting in Europe. (2) If you gotta go, you gotta go. Sometimes we have no choice but to take off during one of these sensitive periods. In those cases, the mere recognition that it might be tough on our kids might be important. We can try to put in place some plans that might help ease children's distress like scheduling more phone calls (or less, depending on how your child responds to these brief connections from afar) and/or taking some extra time off when we return.

But that's the topic for the next post: What CAN we do to make separations from our children less stressful? (Hint: See this pic of one of my boys? That's just one of WAY too many guilt presents he got after I returned from my last overseas trip <sigh>)

Tell us: Have you left your child during one of these sensitive periods or during more stable ages? How did it go? Do you think it's easier to leave younger or older children? How have your children coped with your times away? How have you coped? Do you think it's generally a good or bad idea to leave your children (with a partner or grandparents or other trusted caregivers)
for a few days?

(I haven't said this in a while, so I wanted to remind readers: ALL opinions are very welcome, whether they conflict or are consistent with mine. We want to know what YOU think. What YOUR experiences have been. And I'd like to hear from those of you who DON'T think it's wise to leave kids just as much as I'd like to hear from those who do. Really. Let's talk…)

What’s going on in that sweet little head of yours?

Ever look at your baby and wander what the heck is going on in that head? Ever read those articles in magazines or newspapers or hear stuff on the radio about scientific studies on human infants (non-medical) and wonder "How the heck do they know that?".  Can't exactly ask the baby. Heck, they hardly stay awake long enough to find out anything anyway, even if they could talk.

This week I thought I'd take you behind the scenes of infant research to give you a peek into how scientists get inside that head. In a nutshell? They take advantage of the things that babies already like to do such as suck, listen to and look at new things. Looking has probably been explored the most. And dude, you'd be amazed and what we've learned from theses studies.

Looking studies typically use something called "visual habituation". The set-up looks something like this:Dadandbabycb

Mum or dad wears a pair of headphones, so they can't nudge, budge or influence baby's behaviour in any way (like try to make them look especially brilliant- kidding, kidding…). Baby is given something to look at on the screen (image, video etc.). At first the baby is interested and looks intently ("Hey, what's that?!"). But eventually, baby gets bored and starts to look away – "That again, whatever…" We say that the baby has "habituated". Then the display changes and baby sees something new. If they look with renewed interest – "What the…?!" (we call this "dishabituation")- then we know that the baby detected the difference between the old and new thing. That's it.

Ho hum, you say. But get this, sometimes the change between the old and new thing can be VERY subtle (we're talking teeny-weeny). By tweaking these subtle changes – while keeping everything else in the displays the same – we've learned a whole host of things about what 's going on in that noggin'. And we're talking tiny babies (newborns, 1-month olds) right up to toddlers. 

Check out this example: In one study, 6 month olds who were habituated to displays of say 8 black dots on a white screen, looked longer when the display changed to 16 black dots. As the two displays contained the same brightness, density of dots, total area of the dots  (i.e. the amount of black), the researchers concluded that the infants must have detected the difference in number. We're talking 6 month olds here people, they're not counting (at least not the way we do)! Cool huh? 

Infant looking has been used to study everything plus the kitchen sink: we're talking awareness of spatial position, proportion, solidity of objects, understanding gravity, adults' intentions (did they mean to grab that object or just touch it by accident?), discriminating faces of the same race, sensitivity to facial expressions and even to rudimentary addition and subtraction (with some conclusions more hotly debated than others).  And get this: it takes longer for babies of depressed moms to habituate to a happy face compared to babies of non-depressed moms, presumably because it's more novel to them! 

Kinda makes you see that bundle of sweetness in a whole new light doesn't it? So what do you think? Are you surprised by some of these findings? Did you have other ideas about how researchers pried their way into the infant brain?  Wanna know about anything in particular about the baby brain? Send your q's and stay tuned to hear more about ingenious ways of getting at the inner sanctum later this week.

Temperament Part IV: Are we FINALLY going to start talking about sleep again?

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments and emails on the last few posts. They have me newly inspired to think about research in areas that have not been touched by developmentalists yet. For this last post about temperament (at least the last for a while), let's think more explicitly about how it may apply to sleep training. I suspect that most of you will be disappointed with the lack of firm guidelines or precise advice that I'm about to give. That's because there's NOTHING out there in terms of good research that has looked at what is the best match between particular child temperaments and particular sleep-training methods. NADA. And I suspect well-designed studies on the subject will NEVER be conducted. Let's just imagine what that would take. It's making my head explode just thinking about it. You'd have to randomly assign families with children who are more "temperamentally sensitive" to a "cry-it-out" group, or a "no-cry training approach" group or a "don't do anything" group. Then you'd have to get families with "easy" kids to be assigned to the same 3 sleep-training groups and do it all over again with "slow-to-warm" or whatever categories you're working with. What parent with a child with ANY temperament will go through with a sleep method they don't think is working for their kid? How can you force this random assignment to stick and for families to go through it. You can't, basically (or it would be very, very difficult and your sample would be horrendously biased). And of course some methods will have to be slightly modified (for ethical reasons, if nothing else) so that they're suitable for the child that cries until he throws up vs the child who doesn't even whimper when the mother leaves the room. And there are SO MANY other factors that could impinge on the "success" or "failure" of these temperament-method matches. WHOA!  But you're not here for a very bad version of a crash-course in Research Design, are you? Sorry. Let's move on.

So, we don’t have enough information from science to suggest a particular approach to sleep training based on children’s temperamental traits. But I think we can broadly consider certain social and emotional features of different types of temperaments that might be relevant to the decisions you make. A child with a "difficult" or more "anger-prone" temperament often becomes embroiled in pivotal issues towards which parent and child confront each other again and again. These emotional hot spots become difficult to navigate around in more sensitive stages in development. It’s the toddler’s JOB to be defiant, at least some of the time. But when a child is defiant most of the time, teaching ANYTHING, not only good sleep habits, can be hell. So I'd suggest dealing with the tougher sleep-training concerns early on with the more difficult kids, before they become entrenched battle zones (not that I have any data on this, but let's say, before the 18-month transition period). For every rule learned, there will be one less issue to fight about later on. This may be particularly important when it comes to bedtime. Difficult babies may have trouble developing regular sleep habits regardless of parents’ philosophies and efforts. That’s why it’s probably most important to get these kids into a regular, predictable bedtime routine as early as possible—definitely before the 18-month HUMUNGOUS cognitive and emotional stage transition (which has everything to do with NEGOTIATING rules and pushing on your boundaries). Also, I would suggest that the difficult, more rambunctious/rebellious kids are the ones you want to really make sure to sleep train during one of the stable developmental periods. You might get away with some slack with an easy kid, but difficult kids will need to take advantage of the less emotional, less challenging optimal windows for change.

Anxious-inhibited children, as described in Part II, won’t have difficulties in as many situations, but the situations that DO prove to be difficult will have a very particular flavour. These kids will have the most trouble dealing with new people and with separations. And these difficulties are likely to improve on their own with age. So, while they're still hyper-sensitive, try to keep these challenges to a minimum. This applies to a huge assortment of considerations including the types of playgroups you join, the ways you deal with daycare drop-offs, and so on. But with sleep, it means that it might be wise for the parent of an anxious-inhibited child to provide extra doses of love and nurturance when sleeping in any new or less-familiar context. This applies to all sorts of sleeping arrangements including spending the night at the grandparents' house, in hotel rooms, having cousins sleep over, napping at daycare and so on. In all these situations, the anxious child will need EXTRA emotional support, even if daily (and nightly) sleep habits at home are firmly established and are associated with no distress. These considerations will be especially important in those stages of development marked by separation distress. So I'm simply (and perhaps obviously) suggesting that you provide your anxious-inhibited child, or your highly reactive and hard-to-soothe child, with loads of familiarity and free access to his parents for protection and security, especially during the 8-11 month transition and the 18-21 month stage. Of course separation issues will create extra challenges for sleep training. So you should definitely avoid sleep training during these two stages. Instead, shoot for the stages of greatest individual autonomy and resilience: 5 – 7 months and 12 – 16 months (we give these stages specific names in the book, but I won't confuse you here). The 5- 7 month stage might be especially well-suited for sleep training these anxious children, as it comes before the child has ever experienced true separation distress. Finally, take care never to combine sleep training with prolonged parental absence or the presence of unfamiliar adults. In other words, it's probably best to not use any sleep-training method that requires you to leave the child alone, probably crying, for long periods of time. For this type of child, these extended separations from parents (often mom) can be immensely distressing and may not, ultimately, teach the child anything about healthy sleep habits. I would even go so far as to say that if you have a die-hard anxious/inhibited child, don’t even think about baby-sitters until after sleep training has settled into a stable and predictable habit.

Finally, if your child is best described as easy, emotionally resilient, less reactive, easily soothed, then relax! You’re going to have the easiest time with most social-emotional challenges, sleep training included. In fact, you might get away with deviating from the sug
gestions we gave in the book and I've given throughout this blog for the most optimal windows for sleep training. Of course, I'd still suggest sticking to our stage recommendations, but if uncontrollable events like returning to work, moving house, or dealing with another child make it difficult to schedule sleep training during a "stable" developmental phase, you’ll still have a reasonable shot at successful sleep training during non-optimal periods. And less serious consequences if things don’t work out.

Did you consider your child's temperament when you began thinking about what methods to use? Do you have an "easy" temperament child that you sleep-trained with no fuss smack-dab in the middle of one of the stages we DON'T recommend? Do you think there's one method out there to sleep-train that's appropriate for all temperament styles? Do you have any lingering questions about temperament you still want to discuss?

Temperament Part III: Cutting the pie according to emotional arousal and emotional control

I'm going to back up and try not to write the all-encompassing review article that was becoming too big for me and probably too boring for you. Let's consider another one of the most influential scholars in the field of temperament studies and talk a little about her classification system. It's quite different from the last ones we talked about. This work is by Mary Rothbart at the University of Oregon and I think her work is important to consider in the discussion of how
temperament can effect how we sleep train or whether we do so at all. Rothbart thinks about temperament on 2 broad dimensions: the degree of REACTIVITY (in other words, how quickly and intensely does a child react to certain challenges in her environment) and SELF-REGULATION (how quickly and easily does a child control her biological arousal levels and emotions when they're too distressing for her or others).

The extent to which your child is high or low on the REACTIVE dimension is thought to be largely biologically based — it's there at birth and you can see differences in reactivity in newborns. I certainly did with my boys, born 5 min apart. From day 1, if you clapped your hands or something dropped to the floor loudly, one wouldn't even notice, the other would flinch or downright freak out. There's nothing in those styles that I, as a parent, had anything to do with.

But SELF-REGULATION is thought to be more of a developmental acquisition; self-regulation or emotion-regulation skills develop over infancy, toddlerhood and early childhood. And one of the main things that is believed to be a huge part of self-regulation is ATTENTIONAL CONTROL (also called "effortful control"). What do I mean by attentional control? The ability to pay attention to certain aspects of your environment and ignore others; the ability to sustain attention when necessary (like when you need to keep working on a boring problem to solve it); and the ability to shift your attention, especially when frustrated (DUDE the MELTDOWNS we're getting in our house over
crashing leggo constructions that won't fit back together JUST SO is such a great example of this. JUST. BUILD. ANOTHER. BRIDGE! Hmmmm…
maybe I'll film it as a learning tool for the internet). Shifting attention and the control of that shifting is so crucial because the things we choose to attend to can either amplify or dampen our emotional experience (and there's fabulous neuroscientific evidence for the way that our attention amplifies or softens our emotional responses).  As any experienced parent knows, it takes time for children to learn how to control what they will attend to or not, what they'll freak out about or not, how they will respond to an emotional challenge, and so on. And I think (along with many developmentalists) that these regulation skills are among the most critical "habits of mind" that parents (and teachers) can teach their children. We may not be able to do much about how these babies pop out of us in terms of their reactivity or sensitivity to new, challenging or threatening situations, but we CAN help our children learn to deal with the emotions that accompany these challenges.

If you'd like a more thorough review of the temperament literature and a good summary of some of the brain research that's starting to emerge in our field, check out this fairly accessible article in Pediatrics.  It's by Nathan Fox, one of the most well-respected developmental neuroscientists. He's interested in emotional development and children's capacities to regulate their emotions. The article summarizes how researchers generally think about the biological
bases of temperament (and you can access the full article with that
link, btw). The paper is nice because he goes through a bit of a
review of how the original researchers (Thomas and Chess) came up with
their categories and then moves on to other considerations, including
Rothbart's research. He reviews what I have very quickly summarized here: that kids come into the world with
certain propensities to feel emotions either relatively mildly or
intensely (so those initial set points are relatively "inate").
However, the skill of REGULATING these emotions has a whole lot
to do with parenting practices and other "socialization" experiences
(like interactions with teachers and peers). But the article actually refers to studies and data that are too extensive for me to list here.

So… what do you think? Does this way of thinking about children's temperaments or personalities on more emotional dimensions jive with you better than the previous approach, based more on how kids behave? What's your child like? And if you're past MY children's stage of 3.5 crazies, I trust that you will tell me that my previously charming and sweet little boys will indeed learn how to control the OVER-THE-TOP weeping and wailing and HORROR when their blocks fall, they don't get a second ice cream cone, or, dare I say it, THEY. MUST. GO. TO. BED. NOW.

Sleeping issues specifically covered in next post. I promise. But please feel free to think aloud with all of us about how your child's temperament is effecting his sleep… and yours.

This is what you get for reading someone who can’t stop editing…

I'm sorry. I've been working on some crazy, meta-organizing, what-it's-REALLY-all-about temperament post that will clarify all the limitations and challenges inherent in the temperament research and how it could be all addressed if everyone just got along and listened to me, the great and powerful scientist-mommy who really thinks SHE knows how to design a PERFECT temperament study that would actually inform our understanding of sleep problems with children of different types and… blah, blah, bleh. I've STILL got nothing for you. It's large and complicated and I'm obsessing. So that means that I'm basically too confused to put it all in a neat nutshell for you all. But I'm working on it. Really, I am. Until then, let me recommend a few good books that I think are worth reading about your child's temperament. And let's face it, you'll probably only be interested in READING about you child's temperament (or at least what to do about it) if you have one of those crazy little devils that will grow up to be the most insanely talented artists, the most successful, full-throttle CEOs or your run-of-the-mill criminals. In other words, call it what you will, but most books out there on temperament are focusing mostly on the "difficult", "sensitive" or "spirited" child.  Here are some of the better ones:

I can write paragraph-long caveats for each of these books and there are other, great books out there as well on the topic that I haven't linked to because they are not directly related to temperament. Suffice it to say that each of these books that I've linked to DO have some serious limitations, but I think you can learn a good deal from them. At the same time, some of the others I would have linked to have too much of a judgmental angle (although strongly researched) for me to put up here.

I'll be back… either with something on temperament or something completely different because I will have lost the battle with the compulsive editor in my head…

What books have you found useful to understand your child's temperament or personality better?

Temperament Part II: The three little bears meet a developmental psychologist

Let's dive into some of the theoretical approaches to temperament in psychology. This may seem boring to some of you, overly-simplistic to others (I'm often in this camp), or just plain irrelevant to those of you suffering through intense sleep deprivation. All fair criticisms, I think. But I'd like to just get a few ideas out about the broad temperament styles before we all start to concretely speculate about their implications for children's sleep. If nothing else, this post will make you thankful that you skipped that application to grad school in developmental psychology.

I mentioned in Part I of this series of posts on temperament that there are many ways to divide the pie of temperament, and many books have been written on the subject. One of the original systems for delineating temperament styles in infants and young children was developed by Thomas & Chess in the 60s and 70s. It's what I like to call the "three little bears" approach (too hot, too cold, juuuuuust right kinda thing). Here's a reasonable summary of their research approach, the methods they used to categorize kids, and some of the conclusions they came up with.  (It's more complex than I can give credit to in a blog post.) According to these researchers, of the children who could be classified, about two-thirds were labeled “easy” and the remainder were divided almost equally into “difficult” and “slow to warm up.” The easy child adapted smoothly to new experiences, was generally happy, and had few difficulties eating or sleeping. Difficult babies were irritable, fussy, and reactive, they generally cried a lot, and they tended to have irregular eating and sleeping habits. Babies who were slow to warm up would often withdraw from new experiences or people, and they adapted to these experiences only slowly, after repeated exposure. The first groups of children, easy and difficult, probably bring clear images to mind for anyone who’s spent time with children. Indeed, some babies seem to take challenges and novel experiences in stride, whereas others fuss and cry when they are challenged, when their expectations aren’t met, or when they are tired, or hungry, or just plain moody. The "easy" group grow into toddlers who, though rambunctious and defiant to some degree, generally end up cooperating with parents and accepting most situations. Difficult toddlers, on the other hand, can be extremely challenging. They are the ones for whom nothing seems to work, for whom every choice is intolerable, and who fight or resist many parental directives, from putting on their socks to eating what’s in front of them (or eating anything at all except jellybeans and olives). They're also often the ones who are "overly" sensitive to certain foods and to unfamiliar textures, and so on.

The final group, "slow to warm up", seems to apply to children who were more precisely described by Jerome Kagan’s research in the 80s (he's recognized as one of the most prominent developmentalists in the field; he's controversial and damn interesting to boot). Kagan delineated a group of babies who would freeze or withdraw when faced with loud noises, novel sights, and new people. He described these babies as anxious or inhibited. These anxious/inhibited children generally showed a high, regular heart-rate and they would startle very easily and quickly. If we compare “difficult” babies’ and these anxious/inhibited ones, the difficult babies' temperaments seem to revolve around the emotion of anger — they react to many of their challenges by throwing fits of rage or they are often in an angry huff when things don't go their way. But inhibited babies’ predominant emotion is anxiety or fear. They react to strangers with intense shyness, they are often afraid of anything remotely risky (dipping a toe in the water, loud traffic, crawling too far, but especially interacting with new people).

Now remember, I'm referring to infants and young children (we tend to think about temperament as "personality" after early childhood). So what happened to the anxious/inhibited kids when they grew up? A certain proportion of these babies would grow into inhibited, overly-cautious teenagers and adults, a few would develop full-blown anxiety disorders, but the VAST MAJORITY would end up just like most other children, with no real emotional problems at all. So let's be clear here: No one is suggesting that early, biologically-based temperaments do not or cannot change with particular types of EXPERIENCES and exposure to particular environments. Nature and nurture are inseparable and suggesting one trumps the other is silly (it's my blog so I get to say these kinds of sweeping generalizations. And you can — and SHOULD — tell me I'm wrong if you think so).

So these are some of the VERY basic ways that the temperament pie has been sliced. MANY other systems of classification have been put forward as well, of course, but a surprising number don't differ significantly from these basic types. So how does this all relate to sleep? Well, that's the trouble: I don’t have enough information/data/research to suggest a particular approach to sleep training based on children’s temperamental traits. There’s simply no empirical research that has tried to identify the best match between different temperamental styles and different sleep training approaches, nevermind matching these different styles to the best TIME to sleep train. However, we can speculate, (and Marc and I did, in the book) why certain children with various temperaments might respond better or worse to some sleep training strategies administered at certain periods in development.

What are some of your best guesses? How do you think your chid's temperament has influenced his sleep habits? Did you change your mind about the methods or the timing of sleep training when you understood your child's temperament better? Do you think that one particular method or one particular stage to sleep train is most appropriate for all kids, no matter their temperamental style?

Temperament Part I: Let’s talk about our “special snowflakes” for a change

This week, I'd like to focus these posts on the issue of temperament. So, way back when I first started this blog, I provided this caveat. Basically, I acknowledged that all children are indeed unique to some extent, but this blog would be largely discussing how remarkably SIMILAR children can be in terms of the developmental stages through which they grow. Somewhere in that early post, however, I did promise to address how developmental psychologists think about DIFFERENCES among children. Surely, some of you have read a description I've written about the "typical" 9-month old and have shaken your head, not seeing anything similar in your child. Or, even more likely, you've read about the terrible, oh-so-sensitive time windows in development that I have suggested you avoid sleep training AT. ALL. COSTS.  And one of those windows was precisely when you last sleep-trained, with no problems whatsoever and no heartache for you or your baby. I know of a couple of these cases personally, so I know they're out there. The developmental stages I've outlined here have very strong empirical support. There have been decades of studies conducted on the remarkable predictability of cognitive and emotional changes that occur in childhood. But all these studies also show that there ARE differences among children and not ALL children at ALL times conform to either the timing or the character of these stages.

Both as a developmentalist and as a parent (and especially as a parent of twins!) I am very aware of how different children can be. Some individual differences are at least partially built into the child’s nervous system, generally through genetic influences. These differences, usually referred to as temperament, are thought to be evident early in the child's life, if not right from birth. Temperamental differences are thought to be biologically-based and psychologists for decades have been trying to understand, categorize, explore, predict and basically figure out WHY some kids have certain temperaments while others have different ones. We've also been trying to figure out whether some temperaments predict better or worst outcomes for some children and not others. But there's still A LOT of debate about temperamental differences and there's almost nothing out there on how these differences impact on sleep habits. That won't stop me from speculating though…

The interaction between “nature” (genes) and “nurture” (experience) is what makes temperament so difficult, complex, and fascinating to study. For example, children who are anxious or inhibited in the middle of the first year sometimes end up as anxious/inhibited adolescents and adults, but more often end up indistinguishable from their peers. The outcome seems to depend on their social experiences. And the tendency toward depression, while stamped in genes that govern brain development, only leads to depression in certain individuals. Others grow up without depression, due in large part to the nurturance and support of parents and other caregivers.  So, the “finished product” of temperament comes from an ongoing spiral of influence between genes and environment. But temperamental tendencies, and their biological foundations, are clearly seen in late infancy and early childhood, and these differences greatly affect how children will respond to emotional challenges such as sleep training. In turn, the impact of such challenges on the development of personality is huge. And that’s why it’s of utmost importance to try to tailor emotional challenges (like sleep training) to your child’s temperamental vulnerabilities.

In the next couple of posts, I'll be discussing some of the basic research in this area and it would be great if you could join me in discussing/speculating/musing about how temperamental differences could make a difference in your child's sleep training experience.