There are times where I wonder if my two kids are trying to reenact a scene from Lord of the Flies.
In our household, something as simple as changing them into their pyjamas can warrant a blood-curdling scream. Really, trying to force them to do anything is completely futile.
Don’t get me wrong, my three-year-old son and four-year-old daughter are beautiful souls. They are wonderful, heartfelt, affectionate little people. But let’s be honest, my two little ones are anything but placid. They are strong-willed, outspoken, and challenging.
Are these kids just difficult or is there more to it?
While all toddlers exhibit a desire for autonomy, spirited children tend to be incredibly forthright, have particularly strong feelings and can seem like they are on an emotional rollercoaster. In fact, their parents often feel like they’re along for the ride too.
How do you know you have a spirited child?
According to WebMD, one in ten children can be classified as ‘spirited’. These incredible little souls don’t accept instruction at face value. They fight fiercely to be in charge of themselves and want to be right. Despite their strong-willed nature, they are sensitive and feel a plethora of big emotions.
Though they keep any parent on their toes, spirited children undoubtedly will make for some of the most successful adults. Because of their unwillingness to conform for the sake of obedience, their critical thought, and profound empathy, spirited children have the capacity to be incredible leaders.
But how do you get from point A (the willfulness and big feelings) to successfully raised adults with your sanity intact?
How can we parent these lively children while preserving their spirit?
Based on my experience and some research, here are the best strategies I’ve found for parenting a spirited child.
Strategies For Parenting A Spirited Child
Establish a routine and stick to it.
This doesn’t mean have a regimented schedule. Really, so much of the joy of having kids is living in the moment. That said, having a predictable rhythm to your day makes transitions much easier for young children. As one resource on early childhood states, “Providing consistent rituals for transitions can often provide children with enough security to know what to expect at certain times.”
Parent proactively by setting expectations and giving warnings.
Outline the day before it starts. Then, when transitioning (i.e. driving from the car to school, for example), discuss what is to come. Knowing my child can doddle getting into school, I will outline getting out of the car and to the school door quickly. Before going to a restaurant, we explain to our children what will happen and what is expected of them. Dessert comes at the end for good behaviour and dessert is lost without.
Use discipline that makes sense.
Two invaluable assets a parent has when parenting a spirited child are their trust and understanding of one another. Because the feelings of spirited children are so big and so dynamic, consequences and discipline MUST preserve the integrity of the parent-child relationship. Natural consequences are consequences that result directly from bad decisions. For instance, refusing to put on a jacket in freezing weather means my child steps outside and is incredibly cold (don’t worry, I have the jacket on hand for when he concedes). Logical consequences are ones that are parent inflicted based on their child’s poor choices. In the jacket example, my child would not be allowed outside until she put her jacket on. Both make more sense than arbitrary punishments.
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While yelling, spanking, timeouts, and other methods of punishment may make sense at the time, or may give you release, they aren’t effectual strategies for teaching children how to manage their emotion or internalize values.
Punishment often has little or no effect on the misbehavior, and takes the responsibility for the misbehavior away from the child. Children need to be accountable for their own behavior in order to learn the inner control necessary to function as healthy, self-disciplined individuals. A child who is punished with spankings, shouts, and threats may learn how to avoid these punishments simply by not misbehaving in that particular way within sight of the person who punishes. There is no guarantee, however, that the child’s behavior will be changed over time or when she is away from the person who punishes her. – Center for Early Education and Development, Univeristy of Minnesota
When your child is having difficulty with self-regulation, hold them close and empathize.
At such a young age, it is difficult for children to navigate their feelings. Sending them to their room is a great choice if you join them. Isolating your child to encourage them to calm down can actually lead to more upset and more insecurity. Empathy is an indispensable tool. It both acknowledges the child’s feelings and provides them with the words to label their upset.
Be attentive to their emotional needs.
As previously stated, parents of spirited children can feel as though they are passengers on their child’s emotional roller coaster. Certainly, it may seem more logical to dismiss their feelings. We don’t want them more upset. However, it is much more beneficial to acknowledge their feelings. Then, provide them with tools to move through the issue at hand.
“…multiple studies [have shown] that parents who respond to their children’s emotions in a comforting manner have kids who are more socially well-adjusted than do parents who either tell their kids they are overreacting or who punish their kids for getting upset. In general, being supportive—which can include comforting the kids, helping them to deal with their emotions, or helping them take care of the problem—tends to be related to better regulation in kids,” – Nancy Eisenberg, Arizona State University
Scaffold their self-regulation and compliance.
Children can perform better on certain tasks when their parents or an advanced peer is working with them. For example, being close to my daughter allows her to get over her frustration faster. Or, when my son tells me he can’t clean up, I sit beside him. He cleans up well when I help him.
Without a doubt, parenting a spirited child is an involved, formidable endeavour. With the right strategies, we can parent a strong-willed child without breaking their spirit.