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Problem Child?



Brighter Pathways, P.O. Box 372217, Satellite Beach, FL 32937

At age 12, the boy was removed from school by his doctor because of a “nervous breakdown.”  As a young child he had spoken late.  He was never a good student, and his teachers regarded him as a problem.  He had no friends.  Both his parents were sadly resigned to his being “different.”  How else could they explain his odd mannerisms, the religion he had made up and the hymns he constantly chanted to himself?

Everyone who knew the child was convinced he was headed for a life of failure and suffering.  But he surprised them all:  His was a life of triumph and achievement.  His name?  Albert Einstein.

Thirty years ago, such a case history would have been viewed as a fluke – a rare exception to the accepted rule of human development.  A child’s personality, it was believed, was laid down early in life, and after the first few years, the chances for significant change were slim. Today, however, the life histories of thousands of famous and ordinary people demonstrate that the ball game of child development is never over, that even youngsters who seem to be careening toward maladjusted lives can ultimately emerge as wholesome and productive adults.

Consider the case of Freddy, a “loner” who was held back in elementary school until he was almost 20.  He showed little interest in his studies, in sports or in friends. Psychologists who tested Freddy believed that he was likely always to be something of a misfit, a side liner who would have trouble getting along in the world.  Freddy’s teachers and parents alike despaired of his future.  Twelve years later, this “misfit” was a talented environmental designer, a good husband and father, and an active worker in community affairs.

Freddy was only one of hundreds of children studied in a remarkable project begun over a half-century ago at the Institute of Human Development in Berkeley, which now contains probably the richest collection of information ever assembled on human beings over a long period.  In 1928, psychologist Jean Walker Macfarlane began studying every third child born in Berkeley during an 18-month period.  The children were weighed, measured, tested, interviewed and observed at numerous times through their 40th year. The researchers obtained information about them from their parents, teachers, classmates – and the subjects themselves.  Along the way, Macfarlane and her associates made predictions about their subjects as adults: what their personalities would be like, their success in marriage and at work, their ability to cope with the problems of life.

The researchers were startled by the results.  A large number of their predictions turned out to be dead wrong.  Like Freddy, many of the most mature adults – competent, happy, clear about their values, capable of accepting themselves and others – were those who as youngsters had been troubled and troublesome.  They included chronic rebels who had been expelled from school; highly intelligent children who were academic failures; hostile children constantly testing the limits of adult patience and caring; and young depressives – withdrawn and oversensitive.

Why were so many of the psychologists’ predictions so far off?  Macfarlane now admits that the researchers gave too much weight to the troublesome and “sick” elements in a child’s life and too little weight to the healthful, mature elements.  For years mental health professionals – and parents, too – have concentrated on digging for the roots of the problems rather than on spotting the seeds of growth.  The result has been blindness to the healthy side of a child’s nature.

The Berkeley investigators had greatly overestimated how long many undesirable behaviors and attitudes would last.  Moreover, they did not foresee that the very traits we might regard as liabilities in children can ultimately be turned into strong assets.  For example, thousands of youngsters once considered too aggressive have channeled their excess energies into careers as athletes or actors; thousands seen as unfriendly and withdrawn are now productive writers and scholars.

In addition, some children eventually managed to convert worrisome traits into almost the opposite characteristics – as if to compensate for their early difficulties.  A number of “socially inept” and “insecure” children and adolescents became outgoing and highly successful sales people and reporters. Sometimes young children turn their lives around without any assistance.  Often, however, they need support from the outside.  

Six Tips to Make a Turn-Around

1.  Don’t allow your child to be branded by labels.  When a child is identified as a “behavior problem” or “slow,” the label often becomes part of the child’s self-concept.  Youngsters tend to live down to the bleak diagnoses made by adults.  

Jane Mercer, a University of California sociologist, studied a group of children who had been placed in institutions for the mentally retarded.  Some of them had ultimately gone home to their parents and communities, while others had remained in the hospital.  What distinguished these two groups?

Mercer found that those who returned to their communities had never accepted the “retarded” label.  Encouraged by their parents and other family members, these children believed from the very beginning that they didn’t belong in institutions, that they were not mentally deficient.  In contrast, the group that stagnated in the institution – a group with similar IQs and comparable on most vital statistics – consisted of people whose families had accepted the label. Children often need a stubborn advocate – a father or mother – who can be an effective stopgap between label and reality, thereby keeping the child from coming to believe that he is all those terrible things the world says.

2.  Accentuate your child’s positive qualities.  Try to encourage and reward the skills and strengths your child has, rather than focus only on negative traits and weaknesses.  Your child’s pluses may be different from those of the kid next door, and they may not fit in with your own goals for him.


In their book, What We Really Know About Childrearing, Seymour and Rhoda L. Fisher give examples of parents who attempted to prod their children to greater achievement by providing only negative feedback.  One father persistently interrupted his four-year-old, suggesting “better” words that would presumably improve his vocabulary – but that same father never took the opportunity to congratulate or reward his child for his block-building skills.  A mother expressed constant frustration and anger to her four-year-old daughter because the child did not read well enough to suit her, but the little girl got no “strokes” for her phenomenal ability with numbers.

Many parents often react to a child’s failures – a poor grade or a strikeout in a little league game – as if it were a major crisis from which the child could not possibly recover.  They make no effort to hide their disappointment, and they communicate feelings of rejection and worthlessness to the child.  Rejected often enough, children may become less amenable to change.  Get to know your child’s strong points as well as the weak ones, and help the youngster set goals that will yield positive feedback.

3.  Help your child feel in control.  Beginning at birth, children who sense that they can master their environment and fashion their own destiny show a special resilience to stress.  Youngsters who manage to succeed even against impossible odds typically are those who believe that they can influence events and control fate rather than become passive victims.  Such children operate out of a sense of self-regard rather than self-derogation.

Former Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller had to spend much of his energy and talent throughout his school years and even later to overcome dyslexia, a learning problem that includes not only difficulty in spelling and reading but also a tendency to see numbers in the wrong order.  It was the belief that he could rise above it that spurred him to do so. That belief is critical for children at all levels of society.  A youngster’s “I can” may be more important than his IQ.  

4.  View your child’s future with confidence and optimism.  A few years ago, research psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson gave a battery of intelligence tests to grade school students and told them that the results would be fed into a computer and then communicated to their teachers.  When the teachers were told which children constituted the brightest 20 percent of the class, they were amazed; the great majority were very ordinary students.  But because they were sure that the computer must be right, they accepted the verdict.

The result was a dramatic change in the teachers’ attitudes toward the “brightest” students, who were now regarded with respect and confidence in their ability to succeed.  The positive impact on the children’s academic performance was remarkable.

The experimenters then revealed the truth to the teachers:  No computer had been used, the tests had never been scored, and the “brightest” 20 percent had been chosen at random.  (A follow-up study revealed that the average IQ test score of these children was not significantly higher than that of their fellow students.)  The amazing improvement in the students’ performances could have resulted only from the teachers’ changed attitudes.

It was just such positive expectations that transformed the life of Uvaldo Palomares, a poor Mexican-American child.  Uvaldo had the kind of deprived background that so often produces non-achievers; in fact, because he could not learn to read, at one time consideration was given to putting him in a class for the mentally retarded.  Only his mother’s insistent protests prevented that.

Then, one day during his third year of repeating the second grade, Uvaldo was in the playground, playing marbles with a group of children.  A teacher watched him as he won all the marbles.  After the game, she sat down beside him.  “You know, Uvaldo,” she said, “any boy who is smart enough to play marbles as well as you do is smart enough to learn to read.  Now you are going to learn to read.”  And she began to teach him, telling him all the while that he could make it. Uvaldo’s feelings about himself changed.  He remembers vividly the enormous excitement he felt at having a teacher who was really convinced he could learn, who took hold, who was determined that he would succeed.  She wasn’t going to let him off the hook until he realized her expectations.  Uvaldo is now a successful psychologist.

5.  Treat your child with respect and dignity.  Children are quick to pick up even subtle signs of adult disparagement and ridicule.  In order to flourish, youngsters need to feel their individuality is respected and cherished.

In recent studies, dozens of young people were asked what factors they felt most affected their own personalities, and what they would do one day to strengthen the mental health of their own children.  In words that differed in style and mood, a common theme emerged.  Give us a sense of being cherished, a sense of importance and uniqueness, said these children, and you will have offered us the psychological armor with which to cope, no matter what stresses life offers.  Said one young man: “A lot of my capacities and strength, I believe, came from my home – from being given the feeling that I was important.”

Our young know well when we value them and when we do not.  They can feel, shining through even our intermittent storms of temper and outrage, the unquenchable support that exudes from the adult who really cares.

6.  Above all, don’t treat your child like a fragile doll.  Faced with years of admonitions about the dos and don’ts of child rearing, the anxious mother lives, in the opinion of child expert Fritz Redl, “as though a psychiatrist just flew by the window.”  Such a mother is quite convinced that she is to blame for all of her child’s shortcomings.

This just isn’t so.  Jerome Kagan, a Harvard child psychologist, likens the personality of a developing child to sand on a beach.  Every day, another wave comes up and moves it again.  “There is much more change than we once thought; the child is much more resilient,” says Kagan, who urges patience and hope.

It is becoming clear that our young have a magnificent capacity to recover from early problems and setbacks.  Their greatest strength ultimately may lie in the conviction, learned from us, that each of them has the power to mature, to master the environment, to grow up whole – to “make it” on that precious journey begun in the womb.

Adapted from Family Health, Vol. 13, No. 5, by Julius Segal, Ph.D., and Herbert Yahraes