Introduction: Born That Way - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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Introduction: Born That Way

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Born That Way- Termperament Rel

**Author's Note: Other than public figures or people identified in the media, all other persons in this book are either composites of individuals the author has worked with and/or have been given different names and had their personal identifying information altered to protect and respect their confidentiality.  

Shay came out mellow- a calm cool collected baby.  Shortly after birth, the little baby girl took a nap.  Mom and dad gazed at the wonderful little thing that had entered their life.  Pregnancy had been challenging during the first trimester with significant morning sickness, but after that had passed the baby would quietly stir about inside mom.  Shay gazed calmly at the nurse who changed her first diaper.  The nurse exclaimed, "What a sweetie you have here!"  Of course thought both parents simultaneously, "She's my baby after all!"  Thinking that they made such great babies, the parents decided to make another one.  The first one Shay had been what others would call an "easy baby."  Not too many fussy episodes, a relatively mild cry when uncomfortable and needing some care, but easily soothed with nurturing attention and mild cooing and gentle rocking.  About two and one-half years later, the second baby girl was born.  Unlike her older sister, Teri had been much more active prior to birth.  She was up evenings when mom and dad wanted to sleep and once in a while, it felt like she was tumbling like a Circus du Soleil acrobat.  But the morning sickness did not last a long, and the parents thought she would pretty much be like her sister when she arrived.  Birth was challenging as always but not complicated.  Teri came out faster than her sister.  Maybe she was in a bit of a rush!  Another beautiful baby girl.  A bit later, she gazed up as the nurse changing her first diaper, and… Teri screamed like a banshee!  "Oh my goodness," thought both parents accusingly looking at each other, "She's like you!"  Whatever was up, it had to be genetic or inherited.  The dad declared later, "Teri was born that way.  We didn't even have a chance to ruin her!"  Mom asserted Teri was that way inside of me!  She was way more active prenatally than Shay."

Robin Marantz Henig (2009) in a New York Times article titled "Understanding the Anxious Mind" wrote about Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology and his "Aha!" moment in 1989 early in his longitudinal study on temperament and its effects.  Due to the complexity of temperament, he had been looking at only one dimension.  Specifically, he was studying whether babies were easily upset when exposed to new things.  "No high-reactors among the first 18.  They gazed calmly at things that were unfamiliar.  But the 19th baby was different.  She was distressed by novelty — new sounds, new voices, new toys, and new smells— and showed it by flailing her legs, arching her back and crying.  Here was what Kagan was looking for but was not sure he would find: a baby who essentially fell apart when exposed to anything new.  Baby 19 grew up true to her temperament.  This past summer, Kagan showed me a video of her from 2004, when she was 15.  We sat in a screening room in Harvard's William James Hall — a building named, coincidentally, for the 19th-century psychologist who described his own struggles with anxiety as 'a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach ... a sense of the insecurity of life.'  Kagan is elfin and spry, balding and bespectacled.  He neither looks nor acts his age, which is 80.  He is one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century."  

On the monitor, Baby 19 is a plain-looking teenager, hiding behind her long, dark hair. The interview, the same one given to all 15-year-olds in the longitudinal study, begins with questions about school.  She has very few extracurricular activities, she says in a small voice, but she does like writing and playing the violin.  She fidgets almost constantly as she speaks, twirling her hair, touching her ear, jiggling her knee.  "'This is the overflow of her high-reactive nature,' Kagan told me, standing near the monitor so he could fast-forward to the good parts.  Here was a good part:  The interviewer asks Baby 19 what she worries about.  'I don't know,' Baby 19 says after a long pause, twirling her hair faster, touching her face, her knee.  She smiles a little, shrugs.  Another pause.  And then the list of troubles spills out: 'When I don't quite know what to do and it's really frustrating and I feel really uncomfortable, especially if other people around me know what they're doing.  I'm always thinking, Should I go here? Should I go there? Am I in someone's way? ... I worry about things like getting projects done... I think, Will I get it done? How am I going to do it? ... If I'm going to be in a big crowd, it makes me nervous about what I'm going to do and say and what other people are going to do and say.'  Baby 19 is wringing her hands now.  'How I'm going to deal with the world when I'm grown.  Or if I'm going to sort of do anything that really means anything.'  Her voice trails off.  She wants to make a difference, she says, and worries about whether she will.  'I can't stop thinking about that.'  Watching this video again makes Kagan fairly vibrate with the thrill of rediscovery: here on camera is the young girl who, as an infant, first embodied for him what it meant to be wired to worry.  He went on to find many more such children, and would watch a big chunk of them run into trouble with anxiety or other problems as they grew up."

Temperament can be seen as a relatively simple or basic, global, and nonspecific form of emotional and social behavior that a baby shows at a very young age.  The individual may be in fact, born with his or her temperament.  Kagan and his assistants coded infants in their study between low-reactive and high-reactive. 40% were low-reactive babies who were classic easy babies.  They dealt easily with unfamiliarity. 20% were high-reactive babies, including Baby 19 who thrashed and whimpered to the same unfamiliar things.  They were more difficult to comfort.  Kagan brought back most of the infants for testing at 1 and 2 years old.  Primarily low and high reactive individuals, about half of the original group was brought back for additional tests at 4, 7, 11, and 14 years old.  A collaborator, Carl Schwartz, tested some of the individuals at 18 or 21.  "By the earliest assessments, certain patterns had already emerged.  At age 4, children who had been high-reactive were four times as likely to be behaviorally inhibited as those who had been low-reactive.  By age 7, almost half of the jittery babies had developed symptoms of anxiety — fear of thunder or dogs or darkness, extreme shyness in the classroom or playground — compared with just 10 percent of the more easygoing ones.  About one in five of the high-reactive babies were consistently inhibited and fearful at every visit up to the age of 7" (Henig, 2009)

Anxiety-prone kids startled just as much with benign as with unexpected triggers.  They stayed on guard, anxious and wired, whether the situation was threatening or not.  This occurred no matter they behaved in real life and how they felt during the test.  Before nurturing parenting and caregiving that might alter behavior and personality and subsequent to parenting and caregiving, temperament was well entrenched in the babies and children.  Temperament affected how they experienced the world and how they reacted to it.  It affected how they experienced and reacted to other people.  Temperament provides a key developmental foundation for more complex and differentiated behavioral forms— ranging from adaptive personality to psychopathology (Lahey, 2004, page 89).  The most intense and complex behaviors occur probably in the family and the couple.  Temperament has often been considered when assessing children but may be as beneficial for assessment and treatment of couples or with individuals with relationship or intimacy challenges.  Baby 19, fifteen years old in 2004 would have now passed through her adolescence and entered into young adulthood.  She may have had one or more intimate relationships, be now married, and have children.  Kagan's study from more than two decades did not specifically offer guidance, treatment, or therapy for the young woman.  Self-awareness of her reactive personality may have been very beneficial to her and to a potential partner, and the family they would have formed.  An individual such as Baby 19 that understands and accepts both his or her own personalities, his or her partner's and their children's personalities tend to be

less surprised by behavior,

be more effective in predicting and preventing negative behavior,

be more supportive of partners' or children's emotional needs,

foster greater self-esteem,

and feel more competent as partners or parents

have higher self-esteem as well.  

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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