Bad or Spirited? Picky or Discerning? Rude or Honest?

Elia B/Flickrwild child Source: Elia B/Flickr

What a teacher thinks about a child’s ability influences how well that child does in that teacher’s class. When a teacher sees a child as gifted, for example, that child actually does better—learns more and achieves higher grades—than when the same child is in the classroom of a teacher who perceives average ability.

Similarly, when a parent or other adult perceives a child as badly behaved or untrustworthy, the child is likely to comply with the expectation.

Some children really are more challenging to parent than others. Some—10 to 15%—are born with a difficult temperament. They are more sensitive, harder to soothe, more demanding, more challenging than other babies. If you have such a child, you are right to think your job is harder than that of most other parents, but at the same time, you are part of a large minority of the population, and there is help available.

In Raising Your Spirited Child , Mary Sheedy Kurcinka writes about an activity she does with parents in her Spirited Child classes. She gives each parent three index cards and asks them to write on each card a word that describes their child on a bad day. She collects the cards, shuffles them, and then makes a list. Some typical words on that list: argumentative, destructive, obnoxious, defiant, exhausting, explosive, aggressive, inflexible, whiny, noisy, picky, and stubborn. She then directs the participants to work in pairs, taking turns saying “My child is…” and then reading aloud the list of negative attributes that have been collected. Some parents cannot complete the exercise. They are overcome with emotion, in a state that Kurcinka labels the “Red Zone,” a place where negative emotions, and their attendant physiological reactions, overwhelm thoughtful reasoning and empathy. In the Red Zone, our fight-or-flight response means we can’t see our child’s smallness and vulnerability, their inherent sensitivity and goodness; we see only an adversary.

Just say "No." Resist the urge to take on extra obligations at the office or become the Volunteer Queen at your child's school. You will never, ever regret spending more time with your children.

By changing the words you use to think about your child, you soothe your frightened or angry reactions, you change your perceptions of your child, and you move into an emotional zone where thoughtfully responsive parenting is possible. It is only in that healthier ‘Green Zone’ that you can do the good parenting work that will help your child become the wonderful person you hope they really are.

Instead of seeing your child as aggressive, try to see them as dynamic and insistent on pursuing their own aims. Instead of argumentative, try to see them as independent-minded. Instead of defiant, perhaps you can enjoy your child's feisty nature. Instead of destructive, perhaps your child is curious about how things work. Instead of exhausting, try to see that your child is wonderfully energetic, something that will serve them very well in life. Instead of thinking of your child as explosive, look for the passionate sensitivity that motivates their explosions. If your child appears to be inflexible, perhaps it is because they feel strongly about meeting high standards. A noisy child is sometimes an exuberant one. A child who appears obnoxious might be anxiously trying to ensure they are loved unconditionally. A child who might be seen as picky can instead be seen as discerning. Rather than perceiving your child as rude, can you see them as honest? Instead of stubborn, maybe you can see your child’s strength of character. And rather than labeling your child as whiny, look for the underlying desire for self-expression.

In a calm, reflective mood, make a list of all your child’s behaviors and attributes that drive you crazy. Put them in the most judgmental language possible. And then spend some time reframing each of those labels, looking for what is good and strong and valuable underlying the behavior.

It will not be easy—old habits die hard!—but with some thoughtful attention over time to the way you perceive your child and the way you talk about them to others, you can change a habit of negativity, despair, and judgment into one of positivity, optimism, and proud affection.

Pay attention at age 14. That's when most kids start to resist peer influence and flex the think-for-myself muscle, rather than simply following the leader, according to a study published in Developmental Psychology. Want to help strengthen that muscle at any age? Put screens aside and circle the wagons every night. Ask, "What's new with your friends?" This will (here's hoping, if he talks) give you a chance to decode what's happening behind the scenes and offer support.

The more positive language calms your system and helps you feel confident, hopeful, and competent, even when your child is at their most demanding. Yes, you still need to help your child shape their socially unacceptable behavior into ways that will allow them to thrive and succeed, but you are much better able to do that from a position of loving acceptance than from angry opposition.

Additional Reading

Raising Your Spirited Child , by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Freeing Your Children from Disabling Labels ,” by Pam Nicholson

“Why It’s Dangerous to Label People,” by Adam Alter

How to Understand Your Child’s Temperament ,” by American Academy of Pediatrics

Tips on Temperament, ” by Zero to Three

Temperament: What It Is and Why It Matters ,” by Raising Children Network

“Raising a Difficult Child? Try a ‘Spirited’ Spin,” by Dona Matthews