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On High-Reactive Temperaments and Secure Attachment

690096_silent_screamI attended a mother-and-tots group the other night. There were two babies in the corner, sitting in their car seats, one about two months old and the other closer to four months. The older baby was contently looking around, and the younger was sleeping, later waking to gaze out and only fussing when it was time to eat, afterwards being happy to lie on a blanket on the floor. I asked the mom of the younger baby how it was going at home, and she said that her baby is so quiet and calm that it’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a baby at home.

I can’t imagine. Each of my three children was impossible to forget as soon as they were delivered. Each craved touch and presence. Each protested loudly and violently at separation. Just riding around in the car was a trial, let alone sitting in a car seat at a community function. These were babies that refused to be put down.

I was tempted with my oldest child to “teach” independence by way of crying it out, but she sank into depression that took years to break through. With my younger two, I focused on creating and strengthening a secure attachment, and didn’t try to change them. I just loved them, and continue to love all three of them, as they are. And over time, they have conquered many of their fears and anxieties on their own and have blossomed into secure, confident, happy, competent children.

As luck would have it, there are two types of infant temperament that explains the difference between my friend’s easy baby and my own intense babies. Developmental psychologists Jerome Kagan and Nathan Fox have been the most influential in this field. I had the privilege of getting some comments from Kagan a few months ago while working on a project for Attachment Parenting International (API). He explained that there are two infant temperaments: low reactivity, which accounts for the majority of babies; and high reactivity. High-reactive infants are by definition more reactive, intense, fussy and inflexible than low-reactive infants.

There has long been debate as to whether attachment and temperament are measuring the same thing. And there is clear evidence that some infants are naturally more anxious than others. Attachment is supposed to measure security of relating style, but with these fearful infants, can they form a secure attachment style? API’s Knowledge Base Coordinator Art Yuen has delved into both attachment and temperament research to find the intersection between the two on fearful infants. What she found is that while fearfulness is specific to infant temperament, these high-reactive infants vary in their response to attachment quality. Insecurely attached, fearful-temperament infants have high stress hormone levels, whereas securely attached, fearful-temperament infants do not.

And what becomes of these naturally fearful infants? For this, I find the Orchid Hypothesis to be very interesting. The Orchid Hypothesis theorizes that some children are more sensitive to parental nurturing or lack thereof than other children—that, like the orchid flower, these children need extra nurturing to grow and thrive. If these extra-sensitive children are extra-nurtured, they have the potential to grow into highly gifted children. But if these very sensitive children are not given the more nurturance that they need, they are at risk of developing emotional and behavioral disorders. Basically, there is less room for error.

This is controversial. It is a hypothesis, after all. And it brings the whole blame-the-parents thing back into the discussion. But for me, it makes sense and it brings hope for children whose family trees are riddled with mental illness that perhaps there is a way to break the generational triggering of susceptible genes.

I also like the theory that these naturally fearful infants will grow into children who are naturally more highly creative and may have hidden gifted talents lying behind their sometimes-frustrating character traits. I make a special effort in my household to nurture creativity, both through artistic expression and out-of-the-box problem-solving. Combining self-guided creativity with traditional skills mastery has been especially important in strengthening healthy self-esteem among my children whose high-reactive, emotional overloads can easily tip the scales. And overtime, I feel that I am seeing a difference in how my children are able to self-regulate given their naturally anxious temperaments. I have faith in my parenting approach, and I choose to see my children not as having a problem or a disorder but as budding orchids.

On High-Reactive Temperaments and Secure Attachment

Rita Brhel

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APA Reference
Brhel, R. (2013). On High-Reactive Temperaments and Secure Attachment. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Oct 2013
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