When Jennifer Weiss of Airdrie, Alta., put a dish of parsnips on the family dinner table for the first time, eight-year-old Mackenzie went from calmly chatting to a total meltdown. “He was adamant, arms crossed, tears rolling down his face,” Weiss says. Mackenzie’s mood swings, she says, are typically intense: “from happy as can be to a pile on the floor — screaming that life is unfair and we hate him — in seconds.”
Like 10 percent of all children, Mackenzie, a sweet, loving boy, is what is known as a “spirited child.” These are the kids we refer to as “challenging,” “strong-willed” or worse — traditionally they’ve been slapped with labels like “difficult” or “problem child.” Spirited children may be more intense, more persistent and more energetic than average. “These kids live life bigger and bolder than other kids,” says Michael Popkin, author of Taming the Spirited Child. This can mean they’re enthusiastic and determined. But when they’re little, this temperament often translates into behaviour that’s frustrating for parents — for example, a baby who screams when you don’t hold him, a toddler who never sits still, or a preschooler who falls to pieces because her sandwich was cut into triangles instead of diamonds.
“It’s natural for a parent to wonder: ‘Did I do something to make him act that way?’ But parents need to know it’s not their fault that their child is spirited,” says Sara King, a child psychologist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “It’s just the way that genetics and environment mix up in that particular child.”
Parents of spirited kids can learn how to manage this temperament. And as your child gets more independent, he’ll start doing these tricks to help himself. “Right now it’s driving you crazy,” says Popkin. “But if that child learns to use those traits constructively, they’ll be real assets for the child in the future.”
Spirited kids seem to have extra batteries. They’re hands-on involved with what’s going on around them. When my spirited daughter was younger, it was a Herculean effort to get her to sit for long at the dinner table, and even as she tried to settle in bed, her legs kept moving.
Why it’s a good thing: This is a child who’s brimming with energy, is curious about the world and may be driven to excel in sports.
What to do: “I’m a great believer in letting your kids play outside in the backyard,” says King. “Let them go to a space where it’s OK to be running around and burning off that energy.” Make sure it’s safe. You can also enrol your child in soccer, karate or hockey, providing him with a positive outlet for his high activity level.
Of course, there are times when even busy children are going to have to sit still. Calgary parent educator Celia Osenton says it helps to give your kid frequent breaks to move about. “Do things in small blocks,” she says. Suggest that the teacher give your child excuses to be mobile, picking him to hand out papers or collect the crayons. At the supper table, he can be the designated gofer if someone wants more milk or needs something from the kitchen.
What not to do: Don’t set your child up for failure. If you know his energy is off the charts, don’t expect him to sit through a four-hour car trip without frequent stops, or walk sedately by your side in the grocery store. It just ain’t gonna happen.
“With Grace, everything is an argument, even the smallest little thing,” says Kelly Cierra of Miscouche, PEI, of her eight-year-old daughter. “She is beyond persistent. She’ll just go on and on and on. And then a couple of days later, she’ll bring it up again!”
Why it’s a good thing: This child will stick to tasks and pursue her goals without giving up.
What to do: She can’t always have her way, but a little empathy on your part might work wonders. Acknowledge her feelings: “I can see you really want that cupcake.” And offer alternatives: “You may have it after supper for your dessert.” As she gets older, you can state your reasons: “A cupcake will fill your tummy and leave no space for your healthy supper.” You may be surprised by the solutions offered by your creative little problem solver.
Kids often seem most persistent when parents are busy trying to get something done, King adds. But “what helps is getting them involved. If you’re trying to cook dinner and you’ve got this little voice in your ear, sometimes it’s helpful to say, ‘I don’t have time to talk right now, but why don’t you help me wash the carrots?’ A lot of the time, they just want to be involved.” The bonus: Your persistent child will scrub the heck out of those carrots!
What not to do: There’s no point entering into a power struggle. “Spirited kids will push back for hours,” says Popkin. “If a little pressure doesn’t work, pull back — but hold your limits.” In the case of the coveted cupcake, you might offer her a healthy snack before supper. She still doesn’t get the treat.
Carolyn Saunders* of Vancouver has had 13 years to get used to her daughter Eva’s senses being on overdrive. “We used to have to buy socks with no seams because the seams irritated her feet,” Saunders says. “Smells drive her nuts. I’ll open up an instant-oatmeal packet, and she can be in another room and smell it.”
Why it’s a good thing: This oversensitive child is also highly tuned in to other people’s feelings, and will behave compassionately.
What to do: “The first thing is recognizing situations that could cause problems,” says Osenton. If you notice your child is withdrawing or getting overwhelmed in a noisy situation, such as a birthday party or loud children’s concert, invite him to duck out for a few minutes’ quiet time. As he gets older, he may learn to keep tabs on his own comfort level and take a time out when he needs one.
Try to be patient when he refuses to wear clothes that don’t feel right, and help him define what’s bothering him. If it’s the label, you can cut it off. If it’s the seam on a sock, you can turn it inside out. Weiss’s son will only wear shirts without tags, and pants that feel soft and loose. “Once we find something [that works], we just buy it in as many colours as we can.”
What not to do: Don’t cave to pressure from well-intentioned parents who don’t get it. “Many a time people have said, ‘You’re spoiling her! She can live with the socks she has on,’” says Saunders. “I found that frustrating. This isn’t a discipline issue; this is how Eva is.”
*Names changed by request.
Resistance to change
“Mackenzie refuses to try new things,” says his mom. As a toddler, he took six full months to get used to a big-boy bed, opting to sleep on the floor close to his crib rather than try the bed. And we’ve already heard how a meal of parsnips pushed him over the edge.
Why it’s a good thing: This is a child who will develop strong planning skills to avoid surprises, and can be counted on to be consistent.
What to do: If your kid has trouble switching gears, he may need more lead time before a transition. Does he have to leave with you to get his brother from school? A five-minute warning may not be enough. Give him a heads-up 15, 10 and five minutes ahead of time. These kids appreciate routine. “We have to be really organized with Eva,” says Saunders. “We’ve made an effort to keep her schedule. Dinner is always at a certain time.”
Talking to your child about new things, before they’re dumped on him, will also help him adapt. Ask him how he wants his sandwich cut. Then you’re not dealing with a four-alarm fire when the lunch shows up wrong on his plate.
What not to do: “You don’t want to start being afraid to try new things,” cautions King. “I think spirited kids should be exposed to more things the way other kids are. They just need to be gradually eased into it.”
Spirited kids can be drama queens: They show their feelings powerfully, whether it’s in the form of exuberance — or explosive tantrums.
Why it’s a good thing: This child will be a leader and a passionate go-getter, and will inspire others with her enthusiasm.
What to do: You can head off the fury by teaching your child specific techniques to relax: unclenching fists or taking deep breaths. But you still need clear consequences for kicking, shrieking or throwing her juice box across the room. “You have to be able to set limits on behaviour,” says Popkin. “That is a danger of having a spirited child — that you will become cowed by your child’s power and you will give in.”
Try to set consequences that are logically linked to the behaviour, a strategy that works with any kid, but is particularly effective for spirited children. If your kid messes with your makeup, ban her from playing in your room. Consequences don’t always have to be negative, Popkin adds. “If it looks like your child is starting to overheat, you could say, ‘Would you like to go to your quiet place and listen to music until dinner’s ready?’”
What not to do: When emotion runs high, try not to yell or show you’re upset. It only adds fuel to the fire. “I find if I raise my voice, Grace raises her voice back,” says Cierra.
The last word
There’s no question that spirited children can be trying. But when you’re at your wits’ end, remind yourself just how amazing your kid really is. “I was at the end of my rope,” Saunders says of Eva’s early years. Now a seventh-grader, Eva is praised by her teacher for her organization skills and helpfulness in class.
In the meantime, finding ways to head off trouble before it starts is the key to coping. After the parsnips washout, Weiss brought her son, Mackenzie, to the store. She showed him what fresh parsnips look like, then together they bought one, cut it up and prepared it. “Now he was willing to try it because he helped cook it,” says Weiss. “He said, ‘These are yummy!’”
Books to save your sanity
Taming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their Spirits by Michael Popkin
Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
The Fussy Baby: How to Bring Out the Best in Your High-Need Child by William Sears and Martha Sears
Living with the Active Alert Child: Groundbreaking Strategies for Parents by Linda S. Budd
This article was originally published in July 2010.