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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Behavioral Inhibition: The Temperamental Roots of Anxiety

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

In 1989, a Harvard Professor named Jerome Kagan began a study to look for indicators of anxiety in infants. He worked with 500, white, middle class, 4 month old infants, introducing them to new experiences and categorizing their responses. Kagan noted that most babies gazed calmly at a new object...until he got to "Baby 19". He described this baby as "high-reactive"; the baby cried, arched their back and flailed their legs in response to new sounds, new smells, new voices, new toys, etc. Baby 19 was observed to be difficult to comfort, in contrast to the other babies. Kagan suspected that this infant would grow up to be more anxious than the other babies. What he found is what is understood as the temperamental roots of anxiety.

Is Temperament Destiny?

Kagan followed these infants, and found that at age 4 and again at age 7, most Baby 19s had developed symptoms of anxiety--reportedly experiencing extreme shyness and fearful thoughts. But, by age 15, most of the Baby 19s were doing very well in school and in their social lives. At the same time, though, most reported some level of tension, feeling "on guard" or anxiety underneath.

So is temperament destiny? The answer is neither yes or no. Researchers have found that Baby 19 can become more flexible, and learn to cope--and thrive--through the ups and downs and pressures of life. But at the same time, Baby 19 will likely never become an outgoing, carefree, exuberant adult, regardless of parenting choices, school environment, or anything other life experience.

Parenting Baby 19

Baby 19s, like all the other babies, are lovable, beautiful, "good" babies. At the same time, parents of Baby 19 should know that caring for them can be difficult. Baby 19 demands alot of soothing, often leaving parents overwhelmed and exhausted. It's also true that Baby 19's seemingly intense and frequent distress can evoke difficult thoughts, beliefs and feelings for parents. I often hear parents blame themselves, saying that they aren't "good parents", they report feeling helpless, "I don't know how to comfort my child", worry their baby doesn't love them, and sometimes fear that their own anxiety (heightened due to the distress of their child) is causing Baby's distress.

If you are parenting a baby who has difficulty adjusting to new situations and/or is hard to soothe, it is possible that your baby's distress is temperamental, that they were born with this set of traits that is known as "behavioral inhibition". The take away here is: it's not your fault. You aren't doing anything wrong.

So what do you do? Love your baby. Never give up trying to soothe them. Remind yourself that you may not be able to soothe them all the time, and that's okay. Create and maintain a tight routine, structure. Anticipate what kinds of situations may be distressful to your child. Preview what will happen. Don't avoid challenging situations, but don't force them either. Pick your battles. Seek out balance. Extend your village--get support. Find and practice healthy ways to cope with your own anxiety. Know that there will be ups and downs. Remember that most Baby 19s will learn to soothe themselves, to cope with stress as they grow older. Remember that temperament isn’t destiny. At the same time, see and find love for them just as they are.


At Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, you can find support for your parenting journey. I offer a non-judgmental, parent-shaming free space in which you can learn more about temperament and better understand and respond to your child, so that you and your whole family can thrive!

Call today for a free 15 phone consultation, 856-281-1664!


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