Raising a Difficult Child? Try a “Spirited” Spin

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Spirited Child (aka "grouch")
Source: greg westfall/Flickr

About ten percent of children are born with difficult temperaments. Each difficult child is unique, but difficult children, by definition, are strong-willed, intense, irritable, negative, demanding, and fussy. They cry a lot, and their cry can be a loud, piercing wail. They tend to have irregular sleeping and eating habits, and they don’t usually react well to new experiences or changes in their routines. The innate factors that lead to that behavior don’t change with time.

Other babies are born calm and relatively easy to soothe. They’re generally positive in their moods and emotions, and regular in their sleeping and eating patterns. Those with easy temperaments (about forty percent of people) tend to welcome new experiences, and adapt reasonably well to changes in routine. As long as easy children have the basics of good nutrition, lots of love, enough sleep and stimulation and outdoor exercise, they almost grow themselves up. Most parents find it a lot easier to parent an easy child than one who has a difficult temperament.

Temperament is innate and permanent, but that doesn’t mean that parenting doesn’t make a big difference in what happens next. It does. How difficult children are parented makes a world of difference in the eventual outcome.

What Is Temperament?

Temperament is a psychological term that incorporates a person’s innate activity level, regularity of basic functions, initial approach to new situations, adaptability, emotional sensitivity, intensity, mood, attention span, distractibility, and the amount of stimulation required for a response. Temperament is the result of genetic factors, and nobody’s fault or responsibility. It is powerfully important in a person’s personality and life experience. A child who needs time to feel comfortable, for example, experiences new situations, like a birthday party, very differently than a child who is happy to jump right in.

Parents aren’t responsible for their child’s temperament, but they can make a big difference in the extent to which a difficult temperament becomes a strength or a liability.

What Can You Do About Your Difficult Child?

1. Try for a spirited spin, Notice the difficult factors—you can’t avoid them!—but try to think of them as evidence of your child’s spirited nature. Thinking of your child as spirited —rather than difficult, impossible, dreadful, or bad—can help you find a way to focus on their strengths, rather than all the challenges of raising them. When you think of your difficult child as spirited, you and your child can better see the world of exciting possibility they contain. A spirited spin on their personality and demands gives you hope, helping you transcend exhaustion, self-doubt, and despair.

2. Be kind and loving. The more difficult your child--and degree of difficulty happens on a spectrum, like virtually all human factors--the more important it is that they experience unconditional positive regard, bathed in your affection and warmth.

3. Choose your battles, Say “Yes!” whenever possible, putting a positive spin on any suggestions or reprimands you feel you must make. “Yes! You can have a cookie. As soon as dinner is over,” instead of “No. You cannot have a cookie. Eat your dinner, now!” Same answer, but a totally different spin and feeling, and almost certainly a totally different response from your spirited child.

4. Work with your child’s temperament. Don’t try to change it. Do your best to keep your emphasis on the positive attributes of your child’s approach to the world.

5. Give them what they need. Spirited children need extra help learning to soothe and calm themselves. Make sure your child has a healthy balance, including good nutrition; enough downtime; lots of outdoor time, especially in natural settings; enough sleep; and plenty of exercise.

6. Model the behavior you want to see. If you want your spirited child to be calm, co-operative, and reasonable, make sure that’s how you behave, in spite of all their provocation. Find the balance in your own life that you need in order to be kind, loving, and patient with your spirited child.

7. Be patient. Remember that everything develops. With time, love, understanding, and patience, even the most spirited child can learn to be kind, co-operative, and dependable. And be patient with yourself, too. It is not easy to raise a spirited child.

If you have a child with a difficult temperament, you will almost certainly find solace and guidance in Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child .

And the next time you or someone else remarks on how difficult your child is, try saying to yourself and anyone else who is listening, “I prefer to think of them as spirited.” You might also remind yourself that it is the spirited child who—with the right kind of early support, love, and patient guidance—grows into the most interesting, creative, and successful adult.

Resources for Parents of Spirited Children

Raising Your Spirited Child , by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

8 Signs You Have a Spirited Child, ” by Jess Ulrich

Best Strategies for Parenting a Spirited Child ,” by Alana Pace

“Calm, Sunny, and Sweet? Or Loud, Difficult, and Defiant?” by Dona Matthews

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

Study: Parenting Style Matters Most for Difficult Children ,” by Zawn Villines

Nature and Nurturing: Parenting in the Context of Child Temperamen t,” by Cara Kiff, Liliana Lengua, and Maureen Zalewski

Temperament Rating Scales ,” by The Center for Parenting Education

Tips on Temperament, ” by Zero to Three

“T emperament: What It Is and Why It Matters, ” by Raising Children Network

Strategies for Parenting Children with Difficult Temperamen t,” by Karen Stephens