Preventive Parenting

  • It's not easy to talk about your feelings when you're four weeks old. That's a shame, because from the moment we're born we have a lot to say. If parents knew how to respond, troubled babies might be a lot less likely to grow into troubled kids.

    For all the progress that science has made in unraveling the secrets of the child's brain, it's moms and grandmothers who have always had the right idea. A child with problems, they insist, makes no secret of it from the start, coming into the world timid, moody, jumpy or worse. Experts often dismiss such claims as hooey at best, blame ducking at worst, but there may be more to it than that. A growing body of research shows that newborns do tip their emotional hand early on, giving parents a chance to take control of behavioral problems and maybe even prevent conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression from fully taking hold. Says Lawrence Diller, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco: "Using parenting techniques tailored to a child's personality can improve things dramatically for both parents and kids."

    The idea of telltale infant behavior is not new. In the 1950s, husband-and-wife psychiatric team Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, both now 87, identified nine parameters of temperament--activity level, attention span, adaptability, intensity, distractibility, mood, sensory threshold, response to challenge and predictability of functions such as eating and sleeping--that emerge at about four weeks and indicate a lot about personality. "At one month, behavior starts to be discernible," says Chess today. "These differences define it."

    Half a century ago, that message didn't get through. Chess and Thomas were dismissed as "determinists"--a damning label during an era in which babies were seen as blank slates upon which parents could scribble any personality at all. But practitioners see new wisdom in the old findings.

    Using Thomas and Chess's methods as well as newer personality tests, behavioral scientists find that only 60% of babies have easy temperaments from birth. Most of the rest exhibit significant moodiness, defiance or other traits that place them in the so-called difficult category. Without intervention, 80% of these kids--mostly boys--will act out, becoming oppositional and hyperexcitable, and run a greater risk of developing ADHD. The remaining 20%--mostly girls--become withdrawn and run a greater risk of developing phobias, depression or compulsions. Clearly, not every baby in the difficult group deteriorates this way. One key is the parents.

    Perhaps the best way to keep a difficult baby from becoming an impossible child is to practice preventive parenting--something some parents do naturally. When a baby is resistant to novelty, parents must finesse how they present new things. Well before the first day of pre-school, parents can begin slowly exposing the child to the idea: go for a drive to the school one day, return for a walk around the halls the next. "Give the child lead time," says Dr. William B. Carey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, "but insist the change be made."

    Similar accommodations need to be made for other behavioral problems. Parents of overactive children, for example, may need to allow for a certain level of tumult while lightly tapping the kids' behavioral brakes. The strategies parents adopt depend on the personality of the child, something that's best identified with the help of a professional. "Pediatricians and family doctors know about this," says Diller. "But they practice behavioral intervention in only a limited way."

    To be sure, if a child is predisposed to a clinical condition such as ADHD, even the most deft parenting won't avert the problem altogether--but it can improve things. "If children and parents work together," says developmental specialist Nancy Close of the Yale Child Study Center, "kids can be better equipped to handle whatever challenges their particular sensitivities lead them to." As with so many prevention strategies, the goal is to take control of the problem early, before the problem is the one in charge.