This Sunday the New York Times magazine ran a cover story called Understanding the Anxious Mind that cites clinical findings and experts who believe that some infants as young as four months old show signs of anxiety that might foreshadow the nervous, timid, risk-averse adults they will grow into. I’m fascinated by psychological experiments run on children that give us an insight into human intellligence, personality, and self-regulation. I have blogged twice (here and here) about two simple tests you can run on your own child and that experts believe are fairly accurate predictors of future success. The NY Times piece contains a number of interesting nuggets for attentive parents to take note of:
- A number of long-term studies are coming to similar conclusions that temperament is inborn, and that psychologists who run experiments on children are finding what they call a “long shadow of temperament.”
- What kind of experiments can measure anxiety? This one, run on adults, sounds brilliant: subjects were told to look at a computer screen that could be either blue or green. If the screen was blue, then subjects were told they would get a small blast of air directed at their windpipe that would not be painful but perhaps startling. When the screen was green, that was the safe screen and nothing negative would occur. What happened? The easy-going people when viewing the safe green screen relaxed. The anxious people continued to perspire and show signs of concern even when they were looking at the safe screen. Why? Though they were looking at the green, they were still worried that blue was just around the corner and the startling blast of air would soon follow.
- Temperament it turns out tends to be stable, or change very slowly. So, according to longitudinal studies cited by the NYT, if your child is anxiety-ridden (scared of the dark, very shy in social situations, etc) they may or may not continue to be equally anxiety ridden into adulthood, but it is extremely unlikely they will turn into easy-going, risk taking socialites. One long-term study of more than 100 young children, only 3 out of 107 moved from generally anxious to generally easy going, and vice versa. And those classified as very anxious as children were four times as likely to grow into nervous adults.
- Anxiety may sound like an undesirable trait, but it isn’t such a bad thing. People who are always scared tend to avoid trouble, and thus stay safe. Easy going kids tend to be relaxed in the face of danger and thus are more likely to get hurt or engage in risky behavior — getting pregnant, jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim, etc.
This is a parenting blog, and the article has some advice for parents who think they are seeing tendencies in their children. The clinical response there is interesting; It might be better to let kids deal with their fears rather than rush to coddle them at the first sign of trouble. The article says this conclusion is not firm, so if you want to coddle, then coddle. The experts say that parents of anxious children can combat the effects by helping them find things they are good at to build their self confidence.
This all sounds like pretty serious stuff, but I don’t think there is anything here that we parents should lose sleep over. And nobody should rush their four-month-old into therapy.
I used to believe that babies were born as blank slates, but as I have children of my own I have come to change my opinion toward the view that babies are born hardwired with certain tendencies. This notion was borne out for me in a recent This American Life story on the radio called “Switched at Birth.” It was about two mothers living in the same small town who brought the wrong baby home from the hospital and raised those children into their 40s before the truth came out. The amazing thing, the baby born to a devoutly religious, humorless parents but because of the switch was actually raised in a happy-go-lucky household grew up quiet and humorless. And the baby born to the happy-go-lucky parents but raised in the button-up household developed a sense of humor and a sunny outlook. You can listen to the entire story, which is more nuanced and tragic than I am letting on, here.
So what should we take away from such studies? I would say that as a parent, be attentive to your child’s personality traits and provide them the love and guidance that builds their confidence and makes them feel good about themselves. As they grow older, give them responsibility so that they learn to make good decisions on their own when Mom and Dad aren’t watching. That, to me, is what parenting is all about.