Through his research, Dr. Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard University, found two types of children: One, by the middle of the second year, is timid and shy, fearful and wary. The other is outgoing, sociable, and not easily frightened. Both types can come from similar families.
By school age, half the fearful children Dr. Kagan had studied had lost their timidity; 10 percent of the fearless had become fearful. This, Dr. Kagan says, shows that although biology may produce a child who tends to be vulnerable (fearful), environment can push him or her into the other column. In short, if parents knew what to do, they could overcome biology.
Dr. Paul V. Trad, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Child and Adolescent Outpatient Department at Cornell University Medical Center in White Plains, New York, teaches the parents of his difficult infant patients how to deal with them. One, a 32-year-old mother who works outside the home, had given birth to a baby daughter who cried all the time. We’ll call them Diane and Maggie.
“Every time Maggie cried, I’d think she needed feeding,” Diane says. “I’d try to feed her, and she’d cry more. I’d try to play with her, and she would cry more. Then I’d get anxious, and it would get worse.”
Diane and Maggie had what psychiatrists call a poor mother-child fit. Just because you’re the parent doesn’t mean you and your baby are guaranteed to like each other from the start. Some parents have to learn how to play with and love their babies.
Dr. Trad took videotapes of Diane playing with and feeding Maggie and then played them back. “It became clear that I was overanxious,” Diane says. “I wasn’t watching her. I didn’t wait for her signal. I was doing too much. Watching the tape, you can see her turn away – that’s a signal telling you, ‘Don’t press it.’”
Dr. Trad took Maggie on his lap and played with her to demonstrate how to watch for a baby’s signals. “It’s an adventure, learning about your own child,” Diane says. “Now I am able to respond to her, and she has become a relatively easy baby.”
But the adjustment is harder for babies born into what Dr. Stanley Greenspan calls multi-risk families. Dr. Greenspan is clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D and C. In one study, he and Dr. Arnold Sameroff observed families without “difficult conditions” and others with problems that included one or more of the following:
• The father was absent.
• The mother had suffered from mental illness at least twice in her life.
• The mother was not spontaneous (i.e., didn’t smile at or touch the child).
• The mother was highly anxious.
• The head of the household was unemployed or unskilled.
• There already were four or more children in the family.
If a family had none of these “risks,” the average IQ for the child was 118. If more and more risks existed, the child’s IQ dropped steadily, reaching 85 with seven or eight family problems. Generally, the high-risk families produced children with emotional problems.