Sensitive. Intense. Frequent negative emotions. High activity level. Withdraws or doesn’t easily adapt to new situations. Irregular feeding and sleep routine.
If these terms describe your child then it is likely he or she is what child psychologists would call ‘difficult’. This is in contrast to ‘easy’ children (generally positive moods, routine sleep/wake and feeding schedule, easily adapts to new situations, and mild reactivity) and ‘slow to warm up’ children (slow to adapt to new situations, low activity level, and often in a negative mood).
Although ‘difficult’ is a bit of a harsh term – a more positive perspective is that these children are independent, persistent, and spirited – the word accurately denotes the fact that parenting these children is in fact difficult. And research is now proving just how important this difficult work is.
Because as you may expect, as they grow up these difficult babies and children often end up with more behavioural problems, compared to non-difficult children. BUT! They also have the potential for even better outcomes than their peers, and it all comes down to how they are parented.
In statistical terms this is called an interaction or moderation, but basically it means that difficult children often end up scoring the best OR the worst on qualities including self-control, social skills, adjustment, and problem behaviour, based on whether they were parented appropriately for their needs or not, respectively.
In particular, maternal sensitivity and the use of gentle guidance instead of forceful control are the parenting characteristics shown to result in the best outcomes for difficult children. When mothers are able to respond quickly and appropriately to their children’s’ needs and cues (for example, their distress) and when they use a gentle and non-controlling approach (for example when correcting misbehaviour), children with a difficult temperament have the potential to score even higher than ‘easy’ children on social skills, adjustment, self-control and other positive developmental outcomes.
So to the parents of difficult children – take comfort in the fact that your parenting makes all the difference to your child’s outcomes (unlike easy babies who can, to a certain extent, adapt and thrive regardless of parenting style). Your endless comforting and soothing day and night is not in vain! It is exactly what your child needs to flourish.