tips for raising your spirited child

April 16, 2015

I don’t read a lot of parenting books. I know there isn’t one certain parenting style that “works” and so every book written on the subject will have things in it that I can take or leave. But with Meredith at age 3, I needed help. (I still need help.) So last year I read Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and it was incredibly insightful.

raising your spirited child

Here is a summary of the book and the notes I took. This post is pretty long and I considered breaking it up into parts but ultimately I thought it would be more helpful to have it all in one place. If you have a spirited child, you will definitely want to read this!

What is spirited?

The subtitle of the book is: A guide for parents whose child is more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, and energetic. That pretty much sums it up.

Spirited children don’t all look the same, though. I would say that Meredith is FOR SURE extremely intense, sensitive, and persistent. She is not so much perceptive or energetic, though. (I do get the feeling that Liam will be energetic and persistent at the very least; not getting off easy with him!)

Before getting into the specific characteristics, I want to touch on a few intro concepts that stood out to me:

>Lose the negative labels. The way we talk about something matters. “Persistent” is a much better word that “stubborn.”

>Know your child’s temperament, and know your own. Of all of the above characteristics, I only display moderate persistence and energy. A lot of my struggle parenting Meredith comes because I just don’t understand why she is doing what she is doing because I can’t relate.

>Figure out how you and your child draw energy. Extrovert or introvert? This can explain a lot. I’m an extreme introvert. David is a mix. Meredith displays aspects of both, and I’m still trying to figure it out.

raising your spirited child

Tips for handling the spirited child

Now I want to point out the specific tips I learned for each characteristic of spiritedness. I have returned to these over and over as Meredith grows and changes.

>Pick up on cues for growing intensity.
>Use calming activities (more on this later).
>Use humor.
>Sleep is sacred – guard it.
>Don’t use time-out for punishment, but encourage it as a way to calm down.

>Look for ways to say yes.
>Negotiate/work together (this is not an abdication of parental authority because you are choosing when and how to involve them).
>Find the reason behind the persistence – what are they trying to accomplish?
>Have clear and defined rules that you never waver from (if they are older let them help decide).
>Stop is a better word than no.
>Use consequences, but as a last resort.

>Give your child words to describe how she feels.
>Be sensitive to stimulation.
>Limit screen time (it overwhelms them).
>Know when to quit – at times they just literally can’t handle any more.

Perceptive (aka Distractible)
>They have to feel calm and safe to be able to tune in; check how you communicate to them – not just verbally but with gestures and things around the house.
>Try varied methods; sing songs, write a note, draw a picture, use touch, make eye contact.
>Keep it simple: one thing at a time.
>Say what you mean and be firm about it; don’t add “please” or “okay?” to the end of your directions when there really isn’t a choice.
>Tell them what they CAN do; for example: instead of “stop running” say “walk slowly” and then give a funny demonstration.

Slow Adaptibility
>Establish routine – maybe even make a chart or draw pictures of the plan.
>Allow extra time; you might have to wake yourself up earlier, but rushing is the enemy.
>Give plenty of forewarning.
>Closure: set a timer, ask where they’d like to save their project, allow a “transitional” object to come along, remind of the good things to come
>use imagination to distract from the transition (like pretending you’re on the moon).
>Limit transitions if possible.
>Prepare them for possible disappointment – talk about “what if.”

raising your spirited child

Bonus traits of spiritedness

Some kids get the following bonus traits as well!

>A consistent routine & schedule is essential (they will take longer to adapt but they can).
>They need self-help skills.

High Energy
>Plan for it: provide opportunities to move, but monitor so they don’t rev up. Maybe avoid activities that require lots of sitting but if they have to do so, allow time and space to move afterward.
>Wild activity can just be related to overstimulation, too many transitions, or fatigue.

Negative First Reaction
>Encourage but don’t push.
>Forewarn about new things and talk about what to expect.
>Arrive early or visit ahead of time and allow child to observe.
>Remind child of previous situations she first rejected but now enjoys.
>Give a second chance.

>Help to see the positive; help them to see what they can do.
>Teach good manners.
>Ask specific questions about a situation rather than using general statements.

raising your spirited child


Most tantrums are what can be called “spill-over tantrums” which is when the child has had their temperament pushed to the limits. They aren’t being bad, they just can’t handle their emotions.

There are also peak times when tantrums are more likely to occur, and you should try to reduce demands during these times:

>when your stress is high
>late afternoons
>developmental surges
>getting up and getting out
>empty energy banks

What to do about tantrums?
>run through a mental checklist of the child’s temperament to identify the trigger and if you can, stop whatever triggered it. Maybe it’s too much stimulation, or maybe they are hungry or tired.
>stay with or near them. It’s scary for them to be left alone with strong emotions. They don’t know why they’re doing it. You can take a break if you need it but tell them, and then come back.
>Touch them…
>…or give them space if they’re introverted.
>encourage them to move. Hold their hand and walk. Pace the hall.
>Try distraction.
>After 10-15 minutes, gently but firmly tell them to stop. Show them how to take deep relaxing breaths.
>Talk to them about what’s flooding them with emotion. You might have to wait until later, but it’s worth a try.
>Soft but firm voice. Eye contact.
>Make sure your rules about appropriate behavior during a tantrum are clear. (Ex: it’s ok to cry, throw yourself on the bed, stomp your feet, yell, or ask to be held. It’s NOT ok to hit, kick, pinch, scream, throw things, blame others, spit, scratch, grab, or swear.)
>Clarify consequences.
>When in public, talk out loud. Bystanders will see that you’re handling it.
>Usually spanking will just make it worse. (Personal note: this is absolutely true when Meredith is in the red zone tantrum mode; however we have started spanking for direct defiance at other times and it seems to be effective.)

Bedtime & night waking

>Expect that they will need your presence to calm them.
>Protect naps – they need them more.
>Have a predictable routine with clear limits
>Create a nest.
>Let them sleep in whatever clothes they want.
>No bath right before bed; it raises body temperature and therefore energy.
>Allow plenty of time; use a timer.
>Use a picture planner.
>Catch the window for sleep before they get a second wind


>Provide the right foods, then let go. You did your job and you can’t force them to eat.
>They actually don’t need as much food as you think.
>Make snacks a predictable part of the schedule. Make sweets a snack every now and then, so they aren’t “forbidden fruit.”
>Eat meals together, if not all the time then at least regularly.
>They don’t have to eat, but teach good manners at the table.
>Involve them in food preparation.
>Don’t use food as a punishment or reward.
>Serve a variety of things at a single meal.
>Set limits and minimize distractions.
>Routine again!
>Give them a clear transition to mealtime.
>Let them know about the menu ahead of time.
>Ask if they want the food. If they say no politely, respect that. They may just need to observe, and then they will try it when they’re ready.

raising your spirited child

Getting dressed

>Create a space where distractions are minimized.
>Don’t provide too many choices. If you don’t want them to wear something, don’t have it available.
>Consider doing a “dressy” drawer, “school” drawer, and “play” drawer, then tell them which drawer to pick out of.
>Have clothes that are easy to take on and off, are soft and comfortable, without tags if possible. It might be worth it to spend more to find clothes you both love and they will wear. Shop with them.
>Use imagination while getting dressed; pretend they are putting on a space suit or something.
>Give clear verbal instructions that break it down into little parts.
>Again: allow time, set up a routine, and choose clothes ahead of time.

Thoughts on the book as a whole

Overall this book was essential for me to understand Meredith. I’ve learned to recognize triggers and prevent a lot of tantrums. It’s kind of my guidebook. However, tantrums still happen and there are times when NOTHING works. And there is hardly any emphasis on discipline in the book, something that I feel needs to happen for willful defiance. But still, I recommend it highly for parents of spirited children when the regular parenting books just aren’t cutting it.

p.s. what I learned from Bringing Up Bébé.

Posted in: books & reading, motherhood, tips

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