Parenting Spirited Kids
Some kids are just a little more than others. More energy, more tantrums, more persistence, more highs and lows…just more. If you’ve got a “spirited” kid in your family, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve met with lots of parents in my Oakville psychotherapy office, who are parenting just these kinds of children and find communication with them a bit bewildering at times. In the past, these kids might have been seen as being problems or challenging, but this sense of “more” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. All of these traits can be real assets in life. As parents, we just have to learn how to maximize the good and minimize the not-so-good of these behaviours. Here’s how.
What Not To Do:
- Don’t get into power struggles. The difference between parents and kids is that parents have limits and will get frustrated by a go-nowhere conversation that just won’t end, eventually losing their cool; kids have no limits. They’ll go as far as they think they need to get their way. By explaining and rationalizing your decision, you may be thinking to yourself, “If he understands my reasoning, he’ll see the logic and agree with me.” What your child is actually thinking is, “Mom’s still talking – the negotiation is still on!”
- Don’t give in. You can state your position without get mired in a power struggle. Let your child know your answer, then politely let her know that you won’t be discussing it any further.
- Don’t set your child up for failure. If you know that he needs help staying on task to complete homework or cleaning, or that he needs lots of time and space to run around, don’t expect anything different. Sometimes we tell ourselves that our kids are old enough or have had plenty of time to learn the rules, so they should be able to do what we’re asking. But you know your child. If you know that it’s just too much for him, don’t put him in a position where you’ll both end up frustrated and possibly angry with one another.
- Don’t respond with equal intensity to the emotions of your child. If your child is getting worked up and showing some very intense emotions, it can be hard to for parents to keep their cool. But this is just what you need to do. If you start to escalate your own emotional temperature and start yelling or showing your frustration, you’ll just feed into the intensity of the moment. No child ever gained control of their emotions and calmed down in the face of a parent who was yelling at them. Keep your own emotional reaction in check and model for your child how to handle the intensity.
What To Do:
- While you may not always be able to give your kid what she wants, you can always show empathy and understanding for her feelings. Saying, “I know you’re disappointed we can’t go to the park tonight. It’s hard to have our plans change at the last minute, isn’t it?” shows you get how she’s feeling – but that’s not the same thing as agreeing or letting her have her way. Sometimes kids just need to feel their feelings matter before they can let go of the topic.
- Help your child understand her own needs and be responsible for them. In a loud, crowded birthday party or on the first day of school, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Observe how your child does in high intensity situations, and what the signs are that it’s all becoming too much. Give her the tools to recognize in herself when she needs a mini break, and teach her that it’s ok to sit out for a few minutes if she needs to dial down some of the energy or to regroup if she’s feeling overwhelmed and headed for a meltdown. Knowing how to manage her intense emotions before they get the better of her, is a real gift.
- Stick with routines. Change can be hard on kids at the best of times, and for your spirited youngster, it can be even harder. Predictability and reliability help to reduce anxiety, and knowing what’s coming up can provide a sense of security. If a five-minute warning of an activity change doesn’t seem to head off a meltdown, then try a five minute and a ten minute warning. Or even a five minute, a ten minute, and a thirty minute warnings. Ask your child what would help him, then experiment with timing until you hit a bit of an understanding that works.
- Accept the child you have. It can be frustrating and trying to parent this sort of child, but keep at it! It isn’t uncommon that the intensity of spirited kids becomes easier to work with as they mature and understand themselves better. Remind yourself that their high energy, strong emotions, persistence, and intensity are providing the foundation for great qualities in adulthood – while these traits may be exhausting now, they can absolutely help your child succeed and even excel in the adult world. We never want to squash the spirit of our spirited kids, just help them channel it into socially useful behaviours that help them to bring their unique light to the world.