Monday, April 18, 2011

Why 'Easy' Children Aren't So Easy

I once read a book called The Difficult Child, by Stanley Turecki. In that book, he describes 10 different dimensions of temperament - activity level, impulsivity, distractibility, intensity, regularity, persistence, sensory threshold, initial reaction, adaptability and predominant mood. Every child is born with a distinct temperament that can be described by where they are on the spectrum of each of these traits. This is mostly backed by research, including a landmark study published in 1963 by Thomas et al. (Though I don't think the research supports his insistence that ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders are not temperament. After all, ADHD is defined by hyperactivity, impulsivity and/or distractibility, all of which are extremes of the above dimensions.)

However, it's not just about describing a profile for each child. The research also shows three clusters that describe many children. One cluster, composed of low activity, initial withdrawal, low adaptability, low intensity and negative mood, has been called 'slow to warm up' and mostly ignored in the research and in this book. The other two clusters are exact opposites - 'difficult' children have low regularity, initial withdrawal, low adaptability, high intensity and negative mood, while 'easy' children are the opposite.

The difficult vs easy distinction has appeared under different names in other books. The Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson talks about strong-willed children, who push the limits and are relatively insensitive to punishment, as opposed to compliant children, who have a strong desire to please adults. The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron talks about 'highly sensitive' children who have acute senses and are prone to overload, and less sensitive children in contrast. The specific traits vary, and certainly they're not all talking about the same children (strong-willed children don't seem very sensitive, for example), but the same theme is present in all. There is a category of children who do well with many different parenting styles, and another kind of child who will suffer seriously if not raised with a style exactly suited to their temperament.

According to most of those books, my brother would be considered an easy child. He is generally compliant and wants to please people. He adapts fairly well to change, seldom looses his temper, doesn't mind a lot of noise or activity, pays attention well (except to homework), isn't very impulsive, and is a friendly kid. About his only difficult trait is sensitivity to other people's emotions, and many books call that an 'easy' trait. I'd be considered difficult - stubborn, explosive temper, bothered by change, poor self-control, easily overloaded, switching between inattentive and hyperfocused depending on my interest level, etc.

But in some ways, I think I'm better off than my brother. If he isn't being treated in a way that suits him, he doesn't protest or stop functioning. He suffers in silence, with only subtle signs that something is wrong. I, on the other hand, make it very obvious through my behavior when something doesn't work for me.

Many easy children, I suspect, are putting up with not getting the best handling for their temperament. For example, if you harshly discipline a compliant child, they'll be obediant and smiley even though they're terrified and ashamed inside. If you don't give them enough attention, they won't decide to flush the dog down the toilet - instead they'll start jumping through hoops. I've seen my brother come home with tears in his eyes after a teacher or another student was mean to him, and when I talk to him about what happened, he seldom mentions speaking out against it, even when he knows someone who'd intervene. Many other times, we find out about these things days after they happen, because he didn't want to think about it or bother anyone with his troubles. I've also found myself pushing him to do things he didn't want to do and not even realizing I've stepped all over him, because he didn't complain (or not until the final straw).

And another thing to worry about: children who are easy for adults to manage, are often easy for other kids to manipulate. My brother, because of his strong desire to please, is quite sensitive to peer pressure. He used to have two neighbors, brother and sister 18 months apart in age, who were his best friends until they moved away. Great kids, I liked them a lot, but the sister had a real mischevious streak, and several times she convinced my brother to do things they shouldn't have done. Once, she and an friend of hers (who we suspect was sexually abused) convinced my brother to let them tie him up. He only resisted when he realized this friend was planning to French-kiss him. Fortunately, he's a very strong boy and easily got loose, and told us what had happened right away. I worry about my brother drinking or even doing drugs, not because he doesn't know how bad those are, but because he doesn't want his friends to think badly of him.

All children benefit from being treated in a way that suits their temperament, and suffer when this doesn't occur. And some things that many adults treat as normal are actually bad for any child (though most children won't be ruined by them). An 'easy' child isn't really a child who can handle anything, but a child who doesn't show it obviously when things are going wrong. In a way, the 'difficult' children are actually easier, because they tell you when something is wrong.


Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

Definitely appreciate that kids who are easy for adults to manage are easy also for kids to manipulate.

And being an easy person for/to other people might not be easy for the actual person, whatever their temperament might be.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Ole Ferme l'Oeil said...

This is a thing I think about since a long time.
And I have the feeling that that one thing many interventions try to do to neuro-atypical children is to make them learn to be more "easy" and it make me very affraid, children can be put in such a position of vulnerability.
Personally I am probably both the strong-willed and high sensitive type... there are maybe a lot of difficulty that come with these but also a lot of good point.
for example some kind of strong-willed people may be less vulnerable to follow a fascist system that the majority of people.

5:22 AM  

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