our motto for Raising Your Spirited Child remains the same: Progress, Not Perfection
Being a parent, building a healthy relationship with a child is a never-ending process.
Identify the spirited child
They are normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, and uncomfortable with change than other children.
My Webster’s dictionary defines spirited as lively, creative, keen, eager, full of energy and courage, and having a strong assertive personality. Spirited—it feels good, sounds good, communicates the exciting potential of these children, and yet honestly captures the challenge faced by their parents.
When we choose to see our children as spirited, we give them and ourselves hope. It pulls our focus to their strengths rather than their weaknesses, not as another label but as a tool for understanding.
INTENSITY: The loud, dramatic spirited children are the easiest to spot. They don’t cry; they shriek. They’re noisy when they play, when they laugh, and even when they take a shower, singing at the top of their lungs while the hot-water tank empties. But quiet, intently observant children may also be spirited. They assess each situation before entering it as though developing a strategy for every move; their intensity is focused inward rather than outward.
PERSISTENCE: If an idea or an activity is important to them, spirited children can “lock” right in. They are committed to their task, goal-oriented, and are unwilling to give up. Getting them to change their minds is a major undertaking. They love to debate and are not afraid to assert themselves.
- SENSITIVITY: Keenly aware, spirited kids quickly respond to the slightest noises, smells, lights, textures, or changes in mood.
Every sensation and emotion is absorbed by them, including your feelings.
- PERCEPTIVENESS: Send them to their room to get dressed and they’ll never make it. Something along the way—perhaps a flash of light at the window—will catch their attention as they walk by, and they’ll forget about getting dressed.
- ADAPTABILITY: Spirited children are uncomfortable with change. They hate surprises and do not shift easily from one
activity or idea to another.
REGULARITY: Figuring out when they will sleep or eat is a daily puzzle for parents of spirited children who are irregular.
ENERGY: The tales of spirited kids I hear from parents are truly amazing, like that of the two-week-old baby who “crawled” the entire length of a queen-size bed and was about to land on the floor when his father found him.
Not all spirited kids are climbers and leapers. But they do tend to be busy—fidgeting, taking things apart, exploring, and creating projects—from the time they wake up until they finally fall asleep. Although sometimes viewed as “wild,” their energy is usually focused and has a purpose.
However, if you look more closely, it is usually the intensity of the motion or the persistence of it rather than the energy itself that is at issue.
- FIRST REACTION: A quick withdrawal from anything new is typical of many spirited kids. Any unfamiliar idea, thing, place, or person may be met with a vehement “NO!” or a quick disappearance behind your leg or to another room.
To me they are the essentials of living with and building a healthy, warm relationship with spirited children.
A Different Point of View
Building on the Strengths
demanding argumentative monster madman stubborn destructive picky defiant noisy unpredictable rude totally exhausting whiny dictator inflexible explosive single-minded
Starting today, you can choose to stop using words that project a negative image of your child. It really is not that far a leap from picky to selective or even from obnoxious to dramatic.
committed to goals
focused (single minded)
independent and goal oriented
To the five-year-old who is refusing to wear the new outfit Grandma sent, you can say, “You do have a strong sense of style.”
And to the eight-year-old who refuses to go to bed until she has finished the last chapter in her book, “You are persistent and committed to your goals.”
It feels good to be the parent of a child who is assertive, committed, selective, dramatic, analytical, enthusiastic, and charismatic.
Discipline begins by “drawing your child to you.” Visualizing her strengths moves you calmly and empathetically toward her. When you can see before you your passionate, smart, curious child who is struggling right now, it’s easier to remind yourself that she can learn skills to make it better. Sensing in your approach someone who loves her, and with whom she is safe, she will turn to you, opening to your guidance and calm enough to hear it.
impatient and stubborn.
Fears can be quieted once you realize spirited children can excel beyond their peers.
Energy replaces exhaustion when self-care is recognized as an essential and noble cause.
Efficiency and confidence eradicate incompetence if you have a tool kit of effective strategies in hand.
Celebration eclipses shame as you gaze into the mirror recognizing you too are spirited.
You are normal. You are more.
focus on strengths and potential instead of weaknesses,
Those positive labels change not your only your vocabulary, but your perceptions and, as a result, your actions as well.
What Makes Kids Spirited?
This pattern—a child’s first and most natural way of reacting to the world around him—is called his temperament.
Temperament influences a range of characteristics, including how quickly a child gets upset as well as how long he stays upset and how long he takes to recover.
Spirited children are wired to “fire” faster, capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 miles per hour in seconds. That’s why your child can shift in seconds from being magically awesome to hitting his brother and slamming doors.
WHAT IS TEMPERAMENT?
Temperament also governs how sensitive we are to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and the emotions of others.
Energy levels vary according to temperament, too. A child who is temperamentally active not only likes to move but needs to move. Telling this child to sit still for extended periods of time—and that he could do it if he really wanted to—is like telling you to ignore a full bladder.
This is not to imply that temperament is rigid and unchanging. Like hair, which can be styled, trimmed, or colored, but remains hair, temperament may change in appearance according to how it is “managed,” while remaining fundamentally the same.
The temperamentally active child will always be an energetic individual. How that looks, however, will change over time.
Temperament is not synonymous with personality. Personality is the combination of temperament, cultural influences, and life experiences.
temperament reflects individual differences and has genetic, biological, and neurochemical underpinnings. Temperament is also apparent in the early years of life and relatively stable over time, but it may be altered by maturation, experience, and parenting.
temperament as individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation.
temperament as the “engine inside of us.” Engines vary in size, power, and responsiveness. Your spirited child’s “engine” is like that of a sports car.
From the results of this study, Chess, Thomas, and Birch identified nine distinct differences in how children respond to the world, one of which is intensity of response—similar to Rothbart’s identified trait of reactivity.
see. But first, I want you to realize how much power you have to influence your child’s expression of his spirited temperament.
YOU DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
How your child’s temperament ultimately manifests depends on his age, his experiences, and how he has been parented. David Reiss, M.D., of George Washington University has said, “Whether and how strongly genes that underlie behaviors are turned on or expressed depends on the interaction and relationships a child has with the important people in his life.”
difference. It is you who will help your child recognize when his engine is running too hot. It is you who will give him the words to describe what he is experiencing. It is you who will teach him the strategies to shift lanes smoothly and brake without spinning out of control. Daily practice with him, researchers tell us, creates new pathways within the brain, making these more efficient skills easily accessible and natural to him.
Initially, in this relationship you are the “driver.”
Just as one would never attempt to turn a sports car into a utility truck, it is also critical to avoid the mistake of telling a child who is temperamentally intense, energetic, and sensitive not to be any of those things.
By understanding her temperament and working with it, you assist your child in channeling her energy.
- Recognizing her persistence, you teach her creative problem solving and flexibility.
- Appreciating her sensitivity, you help her know when to take a break.
- You teach her the skills to use the gifts she has been given, allowing her to be all she can be.
Eventually, you will shift your role from driver to leader of the pit crew of support, relinquishing the driver’s seat to your spirited child. By then, she will understand how her engine works and be proficient at accelerating smoothly, shifting efficiently, and braking without swerving.
GETTING A PICTURE OF YOUR CHILD’S TEMPERAMENT
As I explained, researchers Chess, Thomas, and Birch have shown that there are nine different temperamental traits. Each of these can be placed on a continuum from a mild reaction to a strong reaction, or from high to low. Everyone has her own temperament, her own unique style. Spirited children tend to fall on the strong end of the continuum, but others may fall on that end in one or more traits as well.
Remember, there isn’t a perfect temperament. There are positive and negative aspects of all the temperamental traits. Parents make the difference by helping a child to shape her particular qualities in the most advantageous way.
How strong are your child’s emotional reactions? Does he laugh and cry loudly and energetically or softly and mildly?
That isn’t all bad. It means he is also more enthusiastic, exuberant, and zestful.
Spirited children experience every emotion and sensation deeply and powerfully. There is a physical reaction that occurs more strongly in their bodies than in less intense individuals. Their hearts pound, the adrenaline flows through their bodies, and their pulses race. They are not loud because they know it irritates people; they are loud because they really feel that much excitement, pain, or whatever the emotion or sensation might be. Their intensity is real. It is their first and most natural reaction. If you have circled a 4 or 5, you can predict that your child will be easily excited, frustrated, and emotional. When you know your child is intense, you can expect a strong reaction and develop a plan to help your child express it appropriately or diffuse it.
If your child is involved in an activity and you tell her to stop, does she stop easily or fight to continue?
observed that some children can easily stop an activity, whereas others continue despite major obstacles. Spirited kids “lock in.” If they want to do something, they want to do it now and can’t easily give up on it.
The advice to stop a persistent child’s cry by ignoring it is worthless, a frustrating joke. Although other children may fall asleep within minutes of being laid in their beds, this child can scream for hours unless Mom or Dad finds a way to soothe her and help her stop. Ignoring doesn’t work. Persistent kids only cry louder and longer.
Persistent kids are committed to their tasks. If they want a cookie, they’ll keep coming back until they get one. They are goal oriented, unwilling to give up easily.
Many parents of spirited children are baffled by the fact that spirited children can be both persistent and perceptive. They wonder how spirited kids can forget two directions favorite restaurant ten miles back and insist on going there. The answer is simple. Spirited kids are persistent when they are motivated and personally interested in the idea or activity. If it’s their idea, they won’t let go of it. If it’s yours, they are much more interested in what else is going on in the world around them.
How aware is your child of slight noises, emotions, and differences in temperature, taste, and texture? Does he react easily to certain foods, tags in clothing, irritating noises, or your stress level?
Researchers have observed a significant difference in how children react to the sights, sounds, and smells around them. Some children seem unperturbed by scratchy clothes, loud noises, or funny smells, whereas others are extremely sensitive.
Sensitive kids also respond to emotions, serving as the family’s stress gauge. When you feel the worst, they’ll act the worst.
To the sensitive child, every experience is a sensual bombardment. He sees, hears, and smells things that others—including his parents and siblings—might miss.
If your child is temperamentally sensitive, hearing, smelling, and feeling things that you may not even discern, you can expect that food, clothing, crowds, noisy celebrations, and other sensory-loaded activities will easily trigger him. Now when it happens, instead of worrying that he is being naughty on purpose, you can recognize it for what it is: his first and most natural reaction, a reaction you can help him learn to manage.
Does your child notice people, colors, noises, and objects around her? Does she frequently forget to do what you asked because something else has caught her attention?
(ADD). Unmanaged perceptiveness may be perceived as distractibility. The difference between a perceptive spirited child and a child experiencing ADD is that a spirited child will notice everything going on around her, but will be able to process that information and ultimately be able to select the most important information to heed. As a result, she will be able to focus on and complete a task, or make a decision. A child experiencing ADD, despite her best efforts, will be unable to figure out what is the most important information to pay attention to and will not be able to focus on or complete a task, even if she wants to. If you have marked a 4 or a 5 for your child’s perceptiveness, you know that your child is engaging more of the world around her than the average person. She will need your help learning how to tune in to the most important messages. Including visual cues such as photos, objects, colors, drawings, or arrows in directions will make it easier for her to “hear” you.
There are major differences in how individuals adapt to changes and transitions. Some children take little notice of them. For others, transitions or changes of any kind are stressful. Spirited children usually adapt to change very slowly. They hate surprises and need time and forewarning in order to shift from one activity to another.
Spirited kids honestly do shift this slowly. They often don’t realize they are making life challenging for you. They just need time to adjust.