Stacey, who is an assistant professor of Health Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, has a daughter whom psychologists would describe as an emotional child: she cries easily and gets upset frequently. Emotional children are much more affected by what’s going on inside of them (e.g., hunger cues, lack of sleep) and outside (noise, chaotic environments) than "easy-going" children. Their physiological responses to arousing stimuli are more intense.
Stacey’s daughter sounds very much like my own toddler, who has been very emotional and sensitive from birth. Our kids, theory states, are at higher risk for problems, including depression and anxiety as compared to easy-going, happy kids. They are more susceptible to environmental influences. So, if they receive more negative feedback from their environments, they are more likely to have behavioral problems later in life.
Recent research, however, including a study Stacey published with colleagues, found that emotional children are more responsive to the effects of not only negative, but also positive environments. This means that, if I choose to punish my daughter for her crying, she would be more negatively affected by the punishment than a child with an easy temperament. However, if I choose to provide sensitive, nurturing care, she would reap more benefits from it than her easy-going peer.
What parenting style is more optimal for sensitive kids?
What’s optimal, no matter what kind of child you have, is nurturing care with appropriate boundaries. What’s tricky is that kids who are “easy” will be pretty resilient so long as they get good-enough care. It is much more difficult to be nurturing and sensitive with a child who tends to cry easily, or is stubborn and demanding. It teaches you to be flexible, to decide what is worth putting your foot down. I find that what’s optimal with emotional children is to give them a lot of autonomy, to give them choices. Predictability and routine are also very important. Sensitive children don't do well in a chaotic, highly stimulating environment – it needs to be calm and orderly.
What has surprised you the most about parenting?
Although I knew this in theory, it was still very surprising to me that even at birth, infants have little personalities that are very different. Moreover, this personality can dictate and influence how I parent. Before I had children, I had these ideas about what kind of parent I wanted to be, how I wanted to raise my child, what I would do to shape her etc. But after Eliana was born, right at birth, her personality was forceful enough to change how I parent, to make me compromise, and to dictate what she was and wasn’t willing to do. I had to acknowledge that there were some things that were dictated either by genetics or the prenatal environment that I couldn’t control. For example, she cries a lot, she has always cried a lot, and I am realizing it’s not my parenting style, it’s her personality. In some ways, I wish she wasn’t like this, but I’m also not willing to compromise who she is as an individual to get the child that I want. I want the child that I have, not my idea of an ideal baby.