ALL KIDS NEED A BIT OF ‘WILD’ IN THEM. A bit of spirit – a spark. A bit of dig-their-toes-in, can’t-hold-them-back, get-up-and-go. That’s normal. Healthy. Good. But some mothers do ’ave ’em – in DOUBLE-strength!
We’re talking serious ‘wild’ here: Kids who can’t get up or dressed or washed or fed without creating a crisis or a mess … kids who’ll wreck your day by throwing wobblies, spoil your shopping by making a scene, and sulk all morning because you cut their sandwich into squares when they wanted triangles!
These are the kids who can’t sit without climbing, walk without lunging, talk without shouting, look without touching, or touch without wrecking. And if this sounds like a small person who lives at your place, that’s hardly surprising. Because most families have at least one – and some have an entire collection!
“But OTHER people’s kids aren’t like this!” you cry, “Where have we gone WRONG?”
Well, cheer up! Chances are, you haven’t gone wrong. You’ve just got a spirited kid … a special kid … a gifted kid. And according to author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka – in her best-selling book ‘Raising Your Spirited Child’ – you’re lucky!
Your child, she says, is not a ‘PROBLEM’ – your child is simply ‘MORE’: more focused, more determined, more sensitive, more energetic.
And the way to enjoy your wild child is to learn how to MANAGE those ‘mores’ …
On GOOD days, being a spirited kid’s mum or dad is wonderful … fun … rewarding … even brilliant.
But the BAD days are awful – right? You don’t know if you’ll survive another 10 minutes with this kid. You can’t do the right thing, say the right thing – you can’t even get his socks on! Every word’s been a growling, and every disagreement’s been a big-time battle.
“HELP! What have I done to DESERVE this?”
Until recently, most childcare books put negative labels on kids like this: “difficult, strong-willed, stubborn …” But Webster’s dictionary defines ‘spirited’ in more positive terms: “lively, creative, keen, full of energy and courage, having a strong, assertive personality …”
Describing our wild child as a ‘spirited child’ doesn’t deny the huge challenges we face as his parents, says Mary Kurcinka. Instead, it just tunes us in to his potential strengths – and it gives him (and us) HOPE!
NEEDED: A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Much of the advice that works with other children is useless with spirited kids. ‘Ignoring’ your child’s tantrums (as some experts urge) is ridiculous. He’ll just rage for another two hours – all because you opened the door when HE wanted to open it himself!
You can try ‘distracting’ her – but if she wants something bad enough, there’s little chance you’ll succeed. Sending him to his room for ‘time-out’ is pretty pointless if he’s just going to smash it up.
This leaves exhausted mums and dads with a bunch of mixed emotions:
- Fear: “Please tell me I didn’t screw up? That I’m not a terrible mother?”
- Resentment: “Some days I think, what did I do to be punished like this?”
- Shame: “I see a lot of my bad points in my son. I’m stubborn and impatient – and so is he.”
- Embarrassment: “Other people in the shops watch me struggle with my kicking child, and I can just imagine them thinking, ‘What kind of father lets his kid act like that in public?’”
- Exhaustion: “Every day I wonder, ‘How long before he drives me loopy?’ I tell myself to hold out for another 30 minutes till my husband gets home. Then he phones to say he’s running late!”
- Anger: “Since day one, she has screamed for attention. The more you give, the more she wants. The other kids don’t need it. Why does she?”
Suzanne used to feel utterly helpless. A typical day with her spirited three-year-old, Hamish, might start with a lump in his sock that turned into a half-hour ordeal. First, she’d have to remove all loose threads and kinks until it felt just right. That might be followed by tears because his jersey itched through his t-shirt, or the labels scratched his neck, or the sleeves were too tight.
Today, understanding that Hamish is ‘more sensitive’, Suzanne can predict what’s likely to trigger him. She’s learnt that managing a spirited kid takes understanding, skill, and patience. But it IS possible … and it can even be FUN!
Suzanne heard what countless other panicking parents need to hear:
(i) YOU’RE NOT ALONE: 10%-15% of all kids fit the ‘spirited’ description. That means there are piles of parents who walk in your shoes and know the challenges you face. Your child’s not a rebel, nor a freak. And you’re not the world’s worst parent.
(ii) YOU DIDN’T MAKE YOUR CHILD SPIRITED: This kid is wired differently. And you’re just one of many influences in his life – along with relatives, kids, teachers, neighbours, friends and a host of life-experiences. Yes, you make a big difference – but not the only difference.
(iii) YOU’RE NOT POWERLESS: There are books, articles and counsellors who can help you understand your spirited child. Progress, not perfection, is the goal. You can improve skills you already have and learn new ones.
(iv) YOU’RE ALLOWED TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: Of course, you need time for sleep, quiet, uninterrupted adult conversation, lovemaking, a lazy bath, a walk around the block.
(v) YOU CAN CELEBRATE AND ENJOY THIS CHILD: Try focusing on his strengths, appreciating her tender heart, enthusing over their crazy stories. They have character qualities we admire in adults – it’s never too early to PRAISE them. And you can TELL him when he’s good (not just when he’s irritating).
LABELS THAT LIMIT
Children who fit this picture are often stuck with labels. We all do it – without thinking. When she won’t get dressed or never finishes a meal, we say, “You’re such a DREAMER!” When his frequent tantrums drive us nuts, we tell him, “You’re so STUBBORN!”
But look more closely and you’ll see that these negative labels often reflect strengths that are being overused. For example, with a little imagination, ‘aggressive’ is ‘assertive’ … and ‘explosive’ is ‘dramatic’. In fact, the possibilities are endless:
and so on …
And did you notice: the images these new labels create are very different from the old ones. It feels so much better to acknowledge: “My child is assertive … enthusiastic … committed … energetic … charismatic!”
GOOD LABELS ARE CONTAGIOUS
Positive labels can actually give our kids the strength to change irritating behaviour into something more acceptable. In short, kids who LIKE themselves, BEHAVE themselves!
When Tania began sticking positive labels on her eight-year-old, John, so did her relatives and his teachers. “When someone would say, ‘John’s awfully loud!’ I’d respond with a smile: ‘He is dramatic, isn’t he? Let’s get him outside where we can appreciate that more.’ They’d give me a funny look, but later they’d agree – he really can be spectacular. And after a while, I’d overhear my mother say, ‘John, your dramatic side’s coming out again. Let’s turn on the stereo and sing together.’
“At school, when his teacher told us he was stubborn, I nodded in agreement, ‘Yes, he’s very persistent at home too.’ The teacher looked at me and said, ‘I never thought of it like that – I guess it isn’t all bad?’ That changed the way she saw him, and they’ve now got a much better relationship.”
When you drop the labels that highlight weaknesses and use new ones that highlight strengths, you don’t just change your words; it also changes your IMAGE of your child – and your ACTIONS too.
READING YOUR CHILD WELL
Every child has his own unique style, her own unique temperament. And most spirited kids seem to end up at the ‘high’ end of the scale. However, there are positive and negative aspects to each personality – and it’s the overall picture that parents need to focus on.
Using the NINE ‘MORE’ SIGNS we’ve listed (see page 14), try tracking your child’s temperament – scoring 1 for “mild” and 5 for “intense”.
Intense kids have deep, powerful feelings. Their hearts pump, and adrenaline floods their bodies. Whether they’re rushing around, getting louder, pushing the limits, squabbling over nothing, growing more grumpy … they let you know when their intensity is building. And reading their signs is like sniffing smoke: the sooner you act, the sooner you can put out the fire!
Help your child recognise the triggers that set him off – “There are too many people in here, eh – you’re getting all revved up!” – and teach him how to calm down.
When persistent kids wanna do something, they wanna do it NOW!
But you can sometimes defuse a bomb by saying YES more than NO – “Yes, I’m listening. Yes, I hear what you want.” And then negotiate. Aim for a win-win solution instead of a no-win war.
Persistent kids need to hear the good news: “You really stick at things that interest you!”
Your sensitive child is easily swamped by too much stimulation or stress – so aim to reduce both before he reaches ‘melt-down’.
Fluorescent lights, flashing signs, strange smells, and a crowd of noisy rushing people can be real triggers – and it’s worse when energy levels are low.
If your kid’s signalling that it’s all too much with tears or tantrums, try to teach him that words – like scared, annoyed, hurried, tired – can be more effective than just melting down.
Watch for warning signs. Take him somewhere quiet or for a walk outside. Or finish your shopping another day.
Perceptive kids see things no one else sees: the shiny five-cents in the grass … the letter ‘B’ in the sauce on their plate … the horse-face image in the knot-holes on the fence.
Ask your perceptive daughter to get dressed – and she’ll still be in her pyjamas 30 minutes later, staring outside at the cloud formations or reading the book she tripped over on the way to her room.
You need to help your easily-distracted child tune in. “Chris, turn off that TV and do your reading RIGHT NOW!” is less likely to work than – “Hey, Chris, come and sit here, and we’ll look at that book together.”
Remember: hearing instructions is hard work for spirited kids – so the messages must be clear: “Stop! Bed! Shoes! Eat!”
Tell them what they CAN do: “Sit on your chair” instead of “Get off the table!” “Drink your juice” rather than “Don’t play with it!” And don’t suggest there’s a choice if there is none.
These kids need time to shift from doing one thing to doing something else. Naptime, lunchtime, bedtime, drop-off-at-day-care time, and pick-up-from-school time are all transitions they struggle with.
So give them a strong daily routine (to help them know what’s coming) – and plenty of warning:
- “In 10 minutes I need you to stop and come inside …”
- “Once your screen time’s finished we’re going to go and …”
- “When Dad gets home I want you to …”
- “You can finish this after dinner.”
When they do get grumpy, help them express their disappointment in healthy ways. And let them know how proud you are when they cope well with a change – like getting in the car without a fuss.
Sleep deprivation is a classic form of torture. And so is a child who is NEVER hungry at dinnertime but is STARVING the moment you clear the table! But you can cut back on angry flare-ups by being consistent – same thing, same time, every day.
And by being encouraging:
- “You’re really flexible.”
- “You’re full of surprises, aren’t you!”
- “You’ll make a great doctor …” (or nurse, disc jockey, hairdresser, pilot, policeman, or anyone else who works crazy hours).
Energetic kids don’t walk – they run. And they don’t run straight – they lunge in all directions at once. Which is why a long trip in the car can be a nightmare if there aren’t frequent stops to let them release all that energy.
Spirited kids need to know:
- “Your body’s full of energy.”
- “You like to learn by using your hands and feet.”
- “You’ll one day make a great athlete …” (or tradesman, athlete, farmer, whatever).
And our job as parents? To keep them safe and teach them to use their energy in positive, fun ways.
The tendency some spirited kids have to pull back until they’ve sussed things out shows up really early.
Pam remembers her spirited daughter’s first bathtime: “If you’d seen the photo, you’d think there’d been a mistake in the developing … her skin looks purple. But no – she really was screaming that hard!”
First bath, first day at school, first swimming lesson, first time for a new food – many spirited kids will baulk and insist that they don’t/won’t like it. But recognise this as a first reaction – not a final decision. Given time, she’ll often come around.
Kids who are instinctively cautious need encouraging:
- “Hey, I’ll help you!”
- “Sure – check it out before you join.”
- “You like to be sure before you jump in, eh.”
- “It’s okay to change your mind.”
Talk about what to expect. Arrive early, give them time to observe. And allow them to have a second chance.
Roughly 50% of spirited kids are more serious, negative, and likely to cry. They don’t mean to appear sulky or ungrateful – they just see the world through more critical eyes.
So teach them to respect others’ feelings and express themselves more tactfully. And encourage them:
“That’s a great suggestion!”
“You really think things through – you’d make a great lawyer …” (or teacher, scientist, accountant, etc).
“Tell me what you enjoyed. Then tell me what you’d like to see different.”
SO WHAT’S THE SCORE?
Right! Now go back over the nine characteristics and total your child’s score. How does he/she add up?
- 9-18 means you’ve got a cool, compliant kid.
- 19-28 means you’ve got a spunky, lively one.
- 29-45 means (you guessed it!) you’ve got a real, fair-dinkum, spirited child.
Now, this isn’t a scientific analysis – just a guideline to help you get a picture of your child’s temperament.
And if you really want to complete the exercise, go back again and score YOURSELF on these same nine signs!
- Do you and your child match?
- Where are you alike – where do you differ?
- Is your child super-energetic – and you’re NOT? (No wonder you feel pooped!)
- Are you the high-spirited PARENT of a high-spirited kid? (No wonder it feels like a personality-clash!)
Your scorecard will help pinpoint areas you need to approach with care and understanding … activities you need to plan for … some heart-to-heart talks with your child … and an overdue apology (or two) you may need to offer.
Whatever else you do, remember: your spirited kid is not out to GET you. It’s just the way she’s programmed. He’s just marching to the beat of a different drum.
Your willingness to apply positive labels, talk things through, reduce the stress and stimulation, and try some of these other suggestions could make a HUGE difference to how the two of you get through today, tomorrow … and life.
Trust us: you can ENJOY your wild child! Lots of mums’n’dads just like you have proved it …
NINE MORE’ SIGNS
Does YOUR child fit the ‘spirited’ bracket? Check this list of ‘mores’. Not all spirited kids will display all of these, but each will show enough to stand out in a crowd!
1. MORE INTENSE
Loud, dramatic spirited kids are easiest to spot. They don’t cry, they BELLOW. They do everything noisily. But quiet kids can also be spirited – their intensity is inward, that’s all. Either way, their reactions are always powerful, and their tantrums are always spectacular!
2. MORE PERSISTENT
Spirited kids lock on to whatever it is they’re doing. They’re determined, goal-oriented, committed to their task, and won’t let go without a fight. They love to argue and assert themselves. And getting a change-of-mind is a major challenge.
3. MORE SENSITIVE
Spirited kids react to the slightest noise, smell, touch, taste, texture or change-of-mood. Crowds can overwhelm them. Supermarkets can reduce them to tears. And getting dressed can bring on an itchy-scratchy fit. They soak up every emotion. They’ll tell you you’re having a rotten day before you even know it – and they’ll do the sulking for you too!
4. MORE AWARE
Spirited kids are easily distracted. Send them off to pick up their toys, and something else will catch their attention – instructions forgotten. It can take them 30 minutes to make the 30-second trip from car to house. They notice everything – mud in a puddle, birds in a tree, dew on a spider’s web.
5. MORE SLOW-TO-ADAPT
Spirited kids wake up with plans! They hate surprises and don’t cope easily with sudden change – TV going off, ending a game because it’s lunchtime, sleeping at home instead of Grandma’s. If they expect one thing and something else happens – bamm! – all hell can break loose.
6. MORE IRREGULAR
Spirited kids struggle with any kind of schedule or routine. They prefer doing things – sleeping, eating, visiting the loo – in their own way and in their own time. And it’s never the same two days running.
7. MORE ENERGETIC
Most spirited kids never stop – and it’s often that raw, frenzied energy that tells a parent: “We’ve got a live one here!” Not all of them are smashers and leapers, but they can still wear you to a frazzle … always busy exploring, investigating, pulling things apart.
8. MORE CAUTIOUS-AT-FIRST
Some spirited kids are quick to pull back from anything new or unexpected. They need time to warm up before they’ll give it a try. If it’s not in the gameplan beforehand, the first word (and often the last) is“NO!”
9. MORE MOODY
Some spirited kids are very serious, and smiles can be few and far between. They can ask a lot, expect a lot, whine a lot, and find fault with just about everything.
A VERY BIG THANK-YOU:
THIS ARTICLE WAS INSPIRED BY AND ADAPTED FROM MARY SHEEDY KURCINKA’S EXCELLENT BOOK – ‘RAISING YOUR SPIRITED CHILD’ – WITH PERMISSION. AVAILABLE FROM ALL GOOD BOOKSTORES.