Cultivating Aggression: Something We Should Never See on an Infant’s Daily Report

A recently published study in the Journal of Child Development, found that adults who express negative emotions towards infants or handle them in a rough manner may be causing significant and lasting psychological harm.

The research study included 260 mothers and their children, from birth to 5, initially, and then continued for 30 years.

A correlation was found between callous or harsh interaction during infancy and children who displayed defiance and aggression as Kindergartners. Furthermore, this tended to continue into adulthood.

Previously, it was thought that difficult infant temperament combined with negative adult interaction was the cause of heightened levels of conflict when these children became toddlers. However, this most recent study found that it was the negative adult responses alone that made the most impact.

What they didn’t find was that infants who were moody, irritable, or hard to console in the first 6 months had any higher risk for aggression later on, than other infants. But, children who were uncontrollable and aggressive between 3 and 5 years were the ones who had been dealt rough treatment by adults early on.

We know that aggressive behavior is fairly common in toddlers, as they struggle between dependence and independence and are learning how to deal with other children. What the study found, was that children whose aggressive behavior persisted to age 5, were very likely to stay that way. The researchers went on to say that aggressive behaviors seen around Kindergarten age are a strong predictor of a long list of future problems, including academic failure, making and keeping friends, depression, and substance abuse.

So, what does this hostile adult behavior look like? It can include shouting or scolding, rough handling during diaper changes, forcing a bottle into the infant’s mouth during feeding, pinning down his limbs or holding him at a distance when crying or fussing, forcibly putting him down into the crib, or using a heavy hand to pat his back.

I know, it’s hard to imagine anyone treating an infant like this, but apparently it happens more often than not. Post-partum depression or environmental stresses can cause a mother to revert to such behaviors and early intervention in those early months is crucial.

But, can this also occur in a child care program? Do you mean those places that are often an infant’s home-away-from-home… where more time is spent in a day with a care provider than perhaps his own parents? Why, yes it can.

A child care provider may be frustrated by too many infants, due to being over-ratio. There may also be a lack of education and experience with infants. Oftentimes, in programs experiencing high turnover, the drive to fill positions in order to stay within licensing guidelines overrides best practices. Consequently, our very youngest will not have a quality or appropriate caregiver.

Knowing what we do about the critical and lasting impact of negative treatment during a child’s first 6 months, it should be a priority in every child care program to make sure those that are hired are experienced and properly educated. There should also be close supervision in infant rooms by the center director. If this means the director must come out of the office to spend time every day in the classrooms (which should already be happening!), then so be it. And, staff who do not fit the description of a loving, consistent, patient, and responsive care provider should be terminated.

Too much is at stake to do anything less.

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