What Did Doctors Learn By Scaring Toddlers in the "Risk Room"?

Remember the twisted experiment to see what happens when kids think they've broken a treasured toy? The doctor in charge of that study also studied children's responses to a creepy "Risk Room." Their behavior in the room revealed surprising things about the child's future behavior.

Toddler Personality Types

What do you learn about a toddler by scaring them? Dr. Grazyna Kochanska thinks you can learn quite a bit. How a kid develops, apparently, depends a lot on what kind of relationship they have with their parent. There are many ways to categorize a parent-child relationship, but the study that Kochanska headed sorted the relationship into four basic groups. The groups are defined by how a child acts when their parent is nearby, and are called, secure, avoidant, resistant, and disorganized/unclassifiable.

A secure child will play and explore confidently as long as their parent is nearby. A resistant child is anxious with the parent nearby, distressed when the parent goes away, but ambivalent when the parent returns. An avoidant child will also be anxious, but will be indifferent to the parent leaving or coming back. A disorganized/unclassifiable child will not show predictable patterns of behavior, and often displays odd, jerky movement.

The Risk Room

The scares in the experiment are obviously pretty mild, as no one really wants to terrify a child, but they are carried out in the "Risk Room." Io9 commenter TrillianJoy mentioned the Risk Room, saying, "I accidentally opened the door to the "Risk Room" once, thinking I was walking into a therapy office, and it's the only time in my life I can ever remember literally jumping into the air because I was so startled." Kids generally got their first taste of the Risk Room at 22 months. The kid got a little time to explore the Risk Room, and then the "mildly threatening acts," started. A researcher encouraged the kids to put on a scary mask, drive a car decorated with rubber snakes, climb a ladder, allow a blood-pressure cuff to be put on their arm, put their hand in a big black box, and play with someone in a clown suit.

What Did Doctors Learn By Scaring Toddlers in the "Risk Room"?

When the kids were 33 months old, the entire room got redecorated to make it look strange to them once again. The mildly threatening acts now included a trip down a weird slide and riding a weird tricycle, and another round of putting on a mask and putting their hand in a big box. Slight variations on the last round of threatening acts were the kid's head being measured with tape instead of their arm being in a blood-pressure cuff, and the kid being encouraged to play with someone in a cow suit. (Cow is scarier than clown? These people haven't seen It.)

For most of the time, the child's parent was in the room with them. Researchers observed how the kid reacted to each event, and characterized their relationship with the parent. They observed whether a kid explored freely with the parent in the room, how close they stayed to the parent, whether they reacted to the parent being out of sight, whether they were eager to try the mildly threatening activities, or whether they refused to participate in them. Based on the child's behavior, the researchers put them into either the avoidant, resistant, secure, or unclassifiable category.

What's the Point?

Why, beyond scaring a few kids, would such a study be conducted? Psychologists knew about the four different types of relationships that the kids had with their parents. The Risk Room was just a way of sorting the kid into one group or the other. After establishing that, Kochanska dug into the meat of the study, which was intended to discover whether the relationship type the kid had with their parent was correlated with the child's personality later in life.

What Did Doctors Learn By Scaring Toddlers in the "Risk Room"?

Over the course of the study, Kochanska found that the relationship a child had with their parent really did show something about how a child would develop. Secure kids seemed to be the most fortunate of the group. Later in life, they were happier and more calm than the other groups. Unclassifiable kids were angrier. Avoidant children were more fearful than secure kids, but resistant children appeared to have it worst. Overall they were less joyful than the rest, and a great deal more fearful. They sometimes even showed fear and distress when they were presented with something that almost always was meant to elicit joy.

Fortunately, none of these observation are a life-sentence for a child. The study only covered the toddler years - during which children are relatively limited in terms of coping skills. The researchers hypothesized that the development of language might help kids learn to cope with the unhappiness they feel during certain situations. Being able to communicate might make them feel more secure, and so their personalities might change as they get more of a handle on the world around them.

Top Image: Lisa Sexton

[Via Emotional Development in Children With Different Attachment Histories.]