Monday, November 26, 2012

My Spirited Child

Oliver; my spirited child
Photo Credit: Ali Lauren Creative Services

The term 'spirited' hadn't really entered my life until very recently. Before I had the term I had words like 'willful', 'quirky', 'difficult', 'high energy', 'particular' and 'Pain-in-my-ass'… Not very 'motherly' that last one but for real; anyone who has or has met a spirited child knows that they push you and sometimes no amount of flowery language will do. 

"The word that distinguishes spirited children from other children is more. They are normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, and uncomfortable with change than other children. All children possess these characteristics, but spirited kids possess them with a depth and range not available to other children. Spirited kids are the Super Ball in a room full of rubber balls. Other kids bounce three feet off the ground. Every bounce for a spirited child hits the ceiling." - Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of 'Raising Your Spirited Child'

My son, Oliver, is spirited. Unlike what many have tried to suggest over the last few years he is not spirited because I held him too much or let him sleep in my bed; he isn't spirited because I don't use time-outs or force him to share or threaten him with consequences unrelated to his actions. On the flip side he isn't spirited because I didn't hold him enough, or removed him from the family bed too early, or because I am not the docile loving gentle parent we'd all like to be 100% of the time. He has ALWAYS been spirited. Only when he was a baby the word we used was 'high needs'. 

This is the hardest thing to acknowledge and accept when you start to realize that your child may not be just like any other kid his age, that he won't be easily cajoled or managed into things the way all of your friends kids seem to be, that the friendly tips your family share with you will never work for your child even if they've worked for two dozen others without fail, that he won't just take your word on anything from food to the direction of the park no matter how reasonable an argument you make or how many 'limited choices' you give him. When you start to realize that he is 'more' it's hard not to feel like they may actually be 'broken' in some way and because we live in a society which idolizes the 'good mother' and blames everything on the 'bad' one it's hard not to start wondering if they might be 'broken' because of something you did. 

I am starting to accept it now, though. Oliver is spirited. He has ALWAYS been spirited. This is who he is and he's NOT broken. He's occasionally a pain in my ass, but he's really truly not broken, and instead of feeling bad like something I did made him this way I should be proud of the person he is and will become. 

Spirited children have a lot of qualities that make them difficult to parent but those same qualities are ones that our society values quite a bit in adulthood: focus and determination, individuality and independence, assertiveness and leadership, creativity and confidence. But sometimes all of that determination, independence, assertiveness, creativity and confidence is being perceived by myself and the outside world as a stubborn, uncooperative, aggressive, mischievous, and entitled wild child; I often fear that underneath those perceptions the other qualities Oliver has like empathy, sensitivity and generosity are being missed. 

So I am starting to learn that the best way to parent my spirited child is to forget about immediate behaviour results and instead find ways to help Oliver channel his energy in positive ways. I need to stop comparing him to what other kids his age can manage and respect that he can handle some situations better than others. I need to let go of the pressure I feel from people on the outside to be in 'control' of my child's behaviour and allow him to live and learn while working on ways to set him up for success in his own way.

"Motherhood is about raising and celebrating the child you have, not the child you thought you would have. It's about understanding that she is exactly the person she is supposed to be. And that, if you're lucky, she just might be the teacher who turns you into the person you are supposed to be." -Joan Ryan 

For anyone else who may be wading (or drowning) in what it means to parent a spirited child gently I've compiled a short list of tips that have helped US live more harmoniously together. There are definitely bad days, there are definitely days where I panic that nothing seams to be 'working' and where not-so-helpful suggestions start to make me doubt myself. Nothing about raising kids is easy and with spirited children it's, well, MORE so. But there are also good days; days where he lets me in on moments of absolute joy and beauty at exactly the moment where I am most receptive to them, days where he has me in tears laughing with his wit and charm, and days where we just seem to click and tune into one another and I start to feel like maybe I am doing something right after all.


The most identifiable mark of a spirited child is their energy. It is seemingly never ending. But it does end at some point and when you get to the end of that energy their ability to cope with their big feelings is almost non-existent. The key is to find balance. 

Spirited kids need an outlet; if they're gross motor oriented like Oliver they need time to run, jump, swing, dance, climb, and yell. If they are fine motor oriented they need time to sort, draw, build, stir, scoop, squish and pinch. But it is also important to recognize where they get their energy from. 

You may have heard the terms 'introverted' and 'extroverted' before but I find many people don't really know what they mean. These terms basically describe where we get our energy from; if you are extroverted you get your energy from people around you and feel drained of energy when you are alone or lacking social stimuli for too long, if you are introverted you get your energy from being alone and feel drained of energy when around people for too long. It is the same for our children. Be sure they aren't spending too much time in situations that could be draining them of their energy and limiting their ability to cope with all the 'more' they have.

I find the best way to balance energy is to try and set a healthy rhythm of energetic release and restful energy recharging; every burst of energetic activity is followed by a mellow 'cooling down time' before starting to ramp up for another energetic activity. For Oliver, who is very social but undoubtedly an introvert, that also means making sure not to over-schedule his social calendar and planning for lots of quiet one-on-one time or recognizing and respecting when he doesn't feel like talking. 


I am often asked what the difference between a spirited child and a child with ADHD is and the short answer is focus. True ADHD means that the child receives stimuli from their environment the same way we all do but lack the ability to choose which of those stimulus is most important to focus on let alone focus on any one thing. A spirited child can and does focus on the most important stimulus, they just may not agree with you about which one is most important in any given moment, and once they're locked in there is no distracting/deterring/redirecting that can get them to let it go until they're ready. (I have a theory that many children diagnosed with ADHD by the educational system may actually be spirited children trapped in a school system that cannot meet their needs. but that's a personal opinion so moving right along…) 

When it comes to keeping the peace with a spirited child I find the best thing to do is to work with this focus as much as possible. If your child has trouble staying on the task you set out for him because he is too focused on the 'beat' of the dish washer it will not kill you to take a moment to show interest in what he's found before trying to lay out your task again, it may even allow you to tie your task in with your child's reality. (example from today: "Wow, that tree branch does look like a dragon's tale! Let's put on your viking boots and go check it out!") but most days you'll find it's easiest just to wait until their attention drifts back to you. Also try planning extra time around things like getting dressed in the morning or arriving at or leaving places so that you can give transitional warnings or count downs and don't feel pressured to rush them along. 

The transitional warnings or countdowns are important. I may have been exaggerating (but only a little) when I said that spirited kids will not let something go once they've focused on it. They will, some spirited children just need to be gently eased from one thing to another. There is no stressor greater to a spirited child (mine anyway) than sudden unexpected change. Talk things out, tell them what to expect, keep reminding, and be ready to reassure them if all the '2 more minutes' in the world won't ease the hurt of leaving the baked-goods section of the grocery store. or ya-know, whatever they're into that day. 


All kids have an independent streak at some point in their lives or several to some extent but, as is the definition we're working with here, spirited kids just seem to be 'more' independent. For me this is the hardest trait to cope with because massive amounts of independence for such a small child comes with equally massive amounts of mess, frustration, and tears (his and mine). I really push myself to recognize and accept when Oliver needs me to back off and on days when I am better at spotting this need we are both much happier. 

Set up your home to accommodate your spirited child at their age and stage. If you read any Montessori resources or blogs you'll find a lot of great ideas for doing this but here's my short list:
Step stools everywhere, only safe items within sight/reach, clothes where they can reach them and pick them, water cups where they can easily fill them, snacks within reach, and brooms and rags where they can get to them (because god forbid you step in to mop up the entire jug of milk he just tried to pour himself, that would be insulting.)

Also remember that everything you do within sight of your spirited child is fair game for them, think of ways they can help because spirited children are so independent that they actually reverse the usual parent-child helping relationship. Trust me, no matter how strong and capable you are, you need your spirited child's help. (or so i've been led to believe)

By making a lot of room in your life for this independence to blossom you will avoid power struggles and give your spirited kid the confidence, control, and responsibility they need to flourish. The word 'uncooperative' used to enter my vocabulary a lot when it came to Oliver but since letting go and respecting his need to do things (all the things!) for himself I have come to realize that he's just eager and independent and there's nothing wrong with that. 

On a more serious note this independence can get a bit scary when it comes to safety. Make sure that you have firm boundaries as to what they can and can't do for themselves. For example Oliver can walk ahead or behind me on the sidewalk but he MUST hold my hand to cross a street or parking lot or he will be carried. Spirited kids will resist these boundaries, they will test them repeatedly so stay close, practice lots, and make sure you are firm for as long as it takes for them to get into the habit. 

perceptiveness and sensitivity:

I often describe some of Oliver's 'quirks' to outsiders as 'sensory issues' since that's the buzz word that people seem to know. I am not discounting that this may actually be the case (we haven't 'officially' looked into it) but it is really common for spirited children to have a hard time coping with certain sensory stimuli. Because spirited children are 'more' perceptive and sensitive than most children it leaves them open to becoming easily overwhelmed. 

I come at this from two sides. First I try really hard to make sure that our home is comfortable for him. We keep radios and televisions on low when they are on but try to keep them off as much as possible, we make sure the lighting we choose is soft and non-irritating, we let Oliver pick clothing and bedding that pass his standards for being 'not scratchy', I only run the washer and dryer when he's sleeping or out of the house because the 'whirring' bothers him and I've stopped using scented products to clean our home or even for my own hygiene because I know it bothers him when things 'stink'. I want our home to be as comfortable for him as it is for us. But I am also working on helping him learn to cope with feeling overwhelmed. 

Here's the kicker to this one though: I may or may not be a little bit 'more' in this department as well so sometimes if there is a sound or smell or bad lighting situation that is overwhelming Oliver chances are it's setting me off as well. Sometimes the best I can hope for is to model an appropriate way to deal with the extra stress, other times I am able to walk him through it. We do a lot of deep breathing and humming, sometimes if we can we find a wall to put our backs on and close our eyes for a few minutes, or duck into a washroom or step outside for a breath of air. find out what seems to set your child off so you can avoid adding stress and come up with ways to cope (that are portable! that's important! this rarely happens at home in our controlled environment) that you can help your child with but that ultimately they will be able to use themselves when they need to. 

There are several other things that can make spirited kids tick, some of which may be surprising to you, I have only listed the ones that a) effect our family the most and b) I have come up with manageable solutions for coping with. If you are struggling, or just curious, I highly recommend the book quoted at the top of this post "Raising Your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka for learning to better understand how you can help guide your child through the world being 'more'. In conclusion if all you come away from this post with is that your child is normal (in her own way) then I feel like I've gotten my point across. If you have experience raising spirited kids please comment below and lend some support for those of us who feel in over our heads half the time!  


Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Just let him play with spirited uncle...:)

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Just let him play with spirited uncle...:)

Malcolm+ said... [Reply to comment]

Actually, I was thinking this article helped me understand my elder child.

Anjali Kochhar Lipman said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much for writing this. I have my own spirited child and its wonderful to hear how others cope. I too am sensorally sensitive, and am learning to model ways of coping (when I can!). As a Montessori trained teacher and, now, parent educator, I've been using and talking about many of these techniques, but you have outlined them so beautifully here that it has really helped me think about it more cohesively. Spirited children really become amazing adults if we can just be sensitive to them and guide their natural experience of the world. Still, it's a hard journey. My 20 month old still sleeps with us, still breast feeds to sleep, and can only be away from me a few hours at a time. When he is happy, he is so joyful, energetic, and funny, and when he crashes, the whole world falls apart. Your post really made me feel like we are not alone. Thanks again!!

Sheila said... [Reply to comment]

That sounds so much like my son. He is so high-energy! Lately we are in the world of make-believe full-time. When he's a monster truck, I can't suggest he use the potty, or eat a snack. I have to tell him to go get an oil change, or have some gas. I don't mind playing along.

And you're not kidding about the independence, either. I have to be careful never to do anything in front of my son that I don't want him to try on his own ... cutting, pouring juice, etc. I've come into the room and found him dragging a stool over to the counter, because he saw me doing it to get into the tall cupboards!

Susan Jone said... [Reply to comment]

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