Surviving with a Spirited Child
How to help your child manage his or her "spirited" behavior and what you can do to diffuse problems or avoid them
Can You Relate?
When my oldest was four, she had five or six full-blown tantrums a day, ugly scenes in which she would lie on the floor kicking, screaming, and lashing out at me. To improve her behavior, I did try everything. I tried time-outs. I tried taking privileges and favorite toys away. I tried positive reinforcement and I tried bribery. I tried ignoring her. I tried negative reinforcement and I tried discussion. Nothing worked. I wondered if my daughter had a disorder that made her this way. I had her evaluated by school personnel and asked my doctor about her. They assured me she did not fit any diagnosis. I felt desperate and alone.
Then I learned I wasn’t alone. I was surfing on the Internet and came across a message board for parents of “Spirited Kids.” The parents there were talking about kids just like mine. “It can be isolating having a spirited child,” says Deborah Shafritz, leader of that message board, parent educator, and mother. “It’s great to know that you’re not the only one. It’s comforting and empowering, and it makes you feel like you’re not a bad parent.”
This supportive group of parents also introduced me to the books by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, entitled Raising Your Spirited Child and its companion workbook, as well as Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles. By reading these books and others, I learned that my daughter wasn’t just bratty, ADD, or hyperactive. She was “spirited.”
Who is the Spirited Child?
Kurcinka defines the spirited child as, “A normal child who is more. They are more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, energetic.” There is no medical diagnosis for spirit—the term is merely a way for parents to relate to their children and specific “spirited” behaviors.
It’s likely that you’ve encountered many spirited kids throughout your life, as experts believe that approximately 20 percent of children in the United States are spirited. Many of these may receive misdiagnosis for other disorders such as ADHD. “This is because sometimes the underlying issues of temperament are not addressed first,” Kurcinka says.
Helen Neville, BS, RN, and co-author of Temperament Tools: Working with Your Child’s Inborn Traits, taught parenting classes in California for ten years when she noticed the differences between temperament issues and other diagnoses. “I’d worked with enough parents who were concerned, dedicated, and well-educated and who were trying hard,” Neville says. “But the amount that these challenging kids pushed was different. It was more. Learning about temperament is the missing piece to parenting.”
The Temperament Challenge
To help us understand the temperament traits, Kurcinka asks parents to take a survey, scoring for their children and then themselves. Here are those nine traits, what it would mean to be on the high—or difficult—end of the scale for each, and some techniques experts recommend for dealing with each trait.
Intensity: Kids with high intensity react in extremes, sometimes even in positive situations like a special occasion. Lots of tantrums over seemingly little things indicate high intensity. Repetitive motion activities like swinging, jumping rope, or doing jumping jacks are often helpful calming techniques. If your child loved to nurse constantly or suck on a pacifier as an infant, then chewing gum or drinking from a sippy cup or straw could help relieve tension.
Energy: High-energy kids have a physical need to run and jump frequently. Without enough physical outlets, a high-energy child will exert that energy in inappropriate ways or at inappropriate times.
Adaptability: To a child who is slow to adapt, any changes in schedule or routine are a problem. These kids need extra time to get used to things, and they may never feel comfortable in some situations. Just acknowledging this will help.
First reaction: Children with strong negative first reactions to new situations will refuse to try new foods, new activities, or play with new friends. They don’t do this to be stubborn, but rather they simply feel like they can’t. Creating smooth daily transitions and a gradual approach to trying new things can help alleviate stress.
Persistence: The persistent child digs in and will not back down in an argument. She repeats questions or demands endlessly. Using a calm, firm voice instead of yelling when giving directions helps keep tension lower, and adjusting expectations and weighing the needs of both you and your child can help you “pick your battles.”
Regularity: If your child is regular, he or she generally eats, sleeps, and eliminates at regular times. An irregular child doesn’t get hungry at set times and can stay up late with little problem. A very regular child will get whiny if meals aren’t regular and he or she needs more sleep, so bedtimes are very important.
Sensitivity: The highly sensitive child reacts negatively to certain sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Clothing may seem itchy or ill fitting. The smells of some food may make her gag. Bright lights could make her nervous and irritable. Don’t think of it as indulgent to buy only one kind of socks or limit shopping time in bright stores.
Perceptiveness: A perceptive child pays great attention to his surroundings and becomes distracted easily. This is the child who stops to look at a bug on the ground when you’re in a hurry to get to the bus stop. So, anticipate. Grant this child extra time to do things and give cues like using eye contact or a touch on the shoulder to help him stay focused on your directions.
Mood: This is the tendency of all people to either be happy-go-lucky or grumpy and blue. Mood is often affected by all the other traits.
The Trickiest Traits of All
So, which trait is hardest to deal with in a child? “The intense, slow to adapt child is likely to be the most challenging,” says Neville. “Then if you add high energy to that, it makes it harder.”
Kurcinka agrees that intensity is a difficult trait. “This is partly because intense children tend to have intense parents,” she says. “When a child becomes intense and moves to the ‘red zone’ or bubbling-over phase, our natural inclination is to go with them.” She says the challenge then becomes how a parent chooses to deal with the intense situation. Kurcinka recommends that the parent take a deep breath and know that while she is equally upset by the situation, she doesn’t have to go to that tantrum mode where the child already resides. After this, the key is to recognize and modify for each trait’s inherent “triggers”—things that happen throughout our day that make us feel out of control or send us into that “red zone.”
Rethinking Energy Overload
High energy is an issue that Shafritz deals with in raising her own daughter. “When she was little, we had to move or remove furniture because she’d climb all over everything,” Shafritz says, adding that once she understood her daughter’s temperament and energy needs, these changes made sense. “Learning about what made her tick made things so much easier. Now she still has energy, but she uses it to get things done.”
A common example of a high-energy child is one who can’t sit still in a restaurant. Some would say the parent needs to “make” the child sit there for an hour or more and eat a meal. It’s something they have to learn how to do. Right?
Neville disagrees. “Kids are who they are and don’t have a lot of ability [at a young age] to change,” she says. “We’re used to saying that the kid has to be different. But when we know about temperament, the parent can do the work of modifying, adjusting, and lowering expectations for behavior.”
If your child can’t seem to sit still in a restaurant, you need to think ahead. “Planning for success means being aware that this child is vulnerable,” says Kurcinka. Parents may try bringing an assortment of quiet things like coloring books, puzzles, and small toys for the child. It may be necessary to take the child out for a walk or a drive while the food is being prepared. Sometimes calling ahead with an order is possible, so that wait time at the table is reduced. If it’s still too much of a challenge, then getting take-out and eating at home may be a better choice.
Giving Them Their Words
It’s also important to use “emotion coaching”—helping give your child words to the things that she is feeling. “You can’t manage emotions if you can’t name them,” Kurcinka says. “Kids need to learn to tell adults what they need. We need to give them the words to describe what is happening to their bodies and what emotion is inside them.”
But is this simply giving in to the whims of the child? Kurcinka says no. “Coaching is not giving a kid what they want. It’s allowing kids to be to successful and get the help that’s needed,” she says.
Neville agrees that giving kids an understanding of their temperament is key. She explains, “Instead of them saying, ‘No! I won’t do it,’ they can learn to say, ‘I’m not ready. I need more time.’ They’ll find an acceptable way to do things.”
The Road to Success
Kurcinka says parents will begin to see progress when their child can verbalize what he needs and what soothes and calms him. “By age seven or eight, they are learning to manage it pretty well,” she says.
Shafritz agrees that she started to see noticeable improvement in her daughter’s behavior at that age. “After seven, it became a more dramatic change. Her sensitivities are actually almost gone now. She’s still intense, but she handles it better,” Shafritz says. “She is still persistent, but it’s more positive; she hates to leave things unfinished, which is great for school.”
Kurcinka says it is successes like these that we, as parents, need to celebrate. “Savoring success means instead of focusing on the mistake, focusing on strengths. It helps you to catch what’s going well,” she says. “Triumph gives us energy to go on to grow.”
Kurcinka also provides parents with hope for the future. “Spirited adults are amazing people. They are aware of their emotions and able to calm themselves. Everyone loves them.”
So, when it comes to your child’s behavior—have you really tried everything? Maybe a look at your child’s temperament is worth a try.
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