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the-challenging-childStanley I. Greenspan MD with Jacqueline Salmon (Da Capo Press, 1995)

Stanley Greenspan (1941-2010) was one of the most influential American child psychiatrists of the last decades. He wrote extensively on issues like child development, parenting, autism and others.

His view of development combines several previous developmental perspectives from psychoanalysis, attachment, neurobiology in a context of increased preoccupation for the relational quality of psychic life. This brief summary of the material present in his book is structured in three parts. The first part describes the stages of emotional development. The second part describes three distinct stages in the life of the school aged child.

1. Stages of Development

Dr. Greenspan presents “a kind of road map that lays out the core emotional milestones through which every child must pass on the way to healthy, mature, personality development”. Each of these stages are characterized by basic abilities that get “unlocked” and represent foundations for skills that can be learned. This is an important idea because not skills cannot be taught unless the basic ability that serves as a foundation is unlocked.

Ability to be calm and regulated

Being calm and regulated allows to be interested and attentive to the environment. Calm attention to the world contributes to developing a sense of security and predictability.

Ability to feel close to others

This is the kernel of our capacity to relate with each other. It is very simply a sense of  enjoyment, of pleasure of being and interacting with others. It starts most often between the baby and her mother     (quite obvious by 4-6 months) and then, gradually, through the years extends in relationships with other family members, teachers, peers etc.

Ability to carry intentional two-way communication

Between six months and eighteen months of age the child learns to read body posture, facial expressions in others (especially parents).  She also gets better on expressing herself  nonverbally. This allows her to engage in the back-and-forth of communication with her parents.

“Before infants can talk, they can communicate and understand most of the life’s basic emotional themes – approval, praise, love, danger, anger – through gestures, facial expression, body language,”

The two-way communication becomes more and more complex with the development of language and throughout life.

Ability to label (describe) ideas, wants, needs and emotions

Starts with the first words, continues and refines all life.

The child will start to use words, ideas instead of actions. Instead of hitting or throwing a fit will say “I’m angry”. Such emotional ideas or symbols allow the child a deeper understanding of the world around her. This also opens the doors of logic, abstraction but also of imagination and creative thought.

Ability to think and use emotions

Starts between two and a half and three and a half years – continues all life.

Beyond labeling, the child  starts to make  more complex associations of emotions and ideas. She links events in cause-effect relationships “I feel happy because Mommy was nice”. This helps anticipating consequences at the time or even before actions are carried. She starts making clearer distinctions        between “me” and “not-me” ideas, things that have to do with inside “me” and others that are outside “me”. This makes possible separating fantasy from reality. (“Just because I think something does not mean it exists for real”).

2. Phases of child development

The age of fantasy and omnipotence (age 4 1/2 -7)

“the world is my oyster”

For the child all things are still possible. There is an “I can do everything” kind of feel for life and the world out there is still magic.

These feelings of omnipotence (“I can do everything”) can easily shift in intense fearfulness and anxiety “I’m scared of everything”)

Towards the end of this phase the child’s understanding and acceptance of reality is firmer although they still go back and forth to fantasy.

The age of peers and politics (7-8 and on)

“the world is other kids”

The world often gets more complicated, from the family relationships to the complex world of peers, “into the politics of the playground”.

“Their self-image begins to be defined by the group”, and “fitting in” is very important.

The thinking becomes more nuanced, less “all-or-nothing” and she begins to recognize and operate with “shades of gray” in order to cope with the complex relationships she faces.

There is a strong sense of competition and the child may not graceful about losing.

Gradually the external reality is always recognized as different from fantasy, a growing sense of self reflecting internal values and ideas appears.

An inner sense of self (10-12 and on)

“An inner picture of themselves based on their emerging goals and values” becomes more important than the issues of the moment.

The relationship with the family can get pretty complicated as “they may feel caught between their   childhood longings and for closeness and dependency and their desire to grow up and be teenagers and young adults.”

The demeanor may fluctuate between defiance and neediness sometimes within minutes. This ambivalence (being caught between two opposite desires), in order to be dealt with, requires a new, more complex capacity to “work things through.”

This capacity consists in “taking in” and then integrating two or more perspectives, realities, positions etc.

Five “difficult” types of children

Greenspan describes five types of “difficult” children but it is important to clarify a few aspects. First, the idea of “types” simply reflects the fact that these patterns of behaviors are common, contribute to a lot a troubles for the children, often may appear purposeful, as if the child would have the choice to just switch the pattern. Maybe even more important is that it points on the reality that often, when confronted with a difficult problem, we may actually react – trying to solve the problem – in a way that adds to the problem. As you will see, all these five “types” of behavior in children tend to bring in parents and educators reactions that could simply make things worse. The preferred ways of reacting are often difficult to practice, take effort, energy, and not lastly, curiosity on the part of the adult.

The highly sensitive child

As the name suggests, the highly sensitive child will tend to have more intense perceptions of events. Changes, novelty may be overwhelming, will generally not explore that much and tends to get clingy to the caregiver. They are cautious and often fearful, shy, worrying about things that most other children will not.

As they grow up, their general tendency to be anxious and panicky may complicate with becoming moody, irritable or depressed.

Early on the parents may realize that their child is more sensitive to  touch, loud noises, bright lights and overreact in various situations. Also, the parents will notice that the child gets equally overwhelmed by their own emotions. They may have a hard time figuring out distances  and have motor-planning challenges.

On one hand, the highly sensitive child may get the parent to be overprotective. On the other hand the child’s clingy/needy patterns may be perceived by the parent as exhausting, annoying, irritating. Instead of swinging in their approach between overprotective and punitive, the parents are encouraged to

“provide consistent empathy; very gentle but firm limits as well as gradual and supportive encouragement to explore new experiences”.

On the positive side, the highly sensitive people tend to be very perceptive, detecting nuances and details where others do not and can “read” people well.

The self-absorbed child

The self-absorbed child tends to be quiet, apathetic, easily tired, “uninterested in exploring people and objects”. Own thoughts and fantasies appear preferable to the outside world. If the sensitive child was over reactive to stimuli, the self absorbed child is passive and under responsive. It may take a more “energetic talk” and even more time just to get their attention.

Parents need to keep in mind that intense and persistent effort is necessary to engage their self-absorbed child. This may be a challenge if the parents are themselves soft spoken and laid back. They will just be tuned out. Capturing attention needs a certain level of positive energy that needs to be learned.

On the positive side, the self absorbed people may have a rich personal fantasy life and may do well independently.

The defiant child

The defiance becomes more obvious in toddler years but it is much more than what is expected. “Negative, stubborn, controlling, does the opposite of what is asked of him, has problems with transitions, engages in power struggles”.  Behaviors vary between avoidant and passively defiant to angry and argumentative. They tend to be rather perfectionists.

For parents is essential to do the hard thing as usual. Do not take it personally, no not get angry and punitive.

“Caregiver patterns that are soothing, empathetic, and supportive of slow, gradual change (and that avoid power struggles) tend to enhance the defiant child’s flexibility”.

On the positive side, if defiance is moderated it may give way to boldness and determination to follow one’s plan.

The inattentive child

The inattentive child is restless, fidgety, forgetful, shifting from one activity or topic to the next. Usually is difficult to keep in mind more than one thing at a time, but then even that one will fade in focus and shift to another.

Parents may get irritated with this type of behavior and become inflexible, rule oriented and even harsh as the child fails to change.

“A better approach would be to urge the child to ponder her behavior so she can figure out ways of concentrating on one subject. Parents and educators can help children with difficulties in processing information through one mode by encouraging them to use some of their strengths in other modes to compensate.”

The active aggressive child

The child often tends to be impulsive (reacts physically to situations without thinking), is easily frustrated and anger often gets expressed physically by hitting, punching. He likely has a hard time inhibiting (stopping or blocking) behaviors they got used to do. An under sensitivity to touch, pain, sound may be present.

“The less warmth and nurturing an aggressive child gets, the more difficulties he may face. Parents who provide firm structure and limits as well as lots of opportunities for consistent, warm engagement can enhance this youngster’s positive qualities. As well, they need to encourage the use of imagination to help him learn to express feelings verbally and use ideas to get what he wants, rather than just angry behavior.”

Through warm, trusting relationships the parents may foster self-observation, reflective thinking, responsive communication.

Once some restraint can be practiced, the child can make use of his energy, decisiveness and charisma.

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