Parenting the Spirited Child


The word ‘spirited’ is often used as an alternative for ‘stubborn,’ ‘strong-willed,’ ‘high-energy’ or even ‘difficult’ when describing a child. While these may seem like typically negative characteristics, if managed correctly by parents, they can be positive, endearing and appealing traits for a child to possess.  Spirited suggests strength and hope, as opposed to a focus on weaknesses.


Case Study – Katie (7)

Katie is considered by her teachers and friends to be a confident speaker who “wants to do what she wants to do”. She has been labelled as bossy and she does not enjoy listening to stories.  Her parents say she is a terror to her little brother and she refuses to dress herself for school.  When I first fetched her for play therapy she stared calculatingly at me, establishing whether she would be coming with me or whether she would in fact stay in her classroom – her safe space.  Katie wants fairness.  She took a long time to warm, shying away from any touch or closeness.  Every time she arrives at play therapy she boldly says “let’s paint” and then proceeds to divide paintbrushes between us, hand me paper, and tell me to “start, use orange.” She often insists mid painting that we must swap brushes because my brush “works better.” She asks questions such as which colour blue and yellow make, and when I tell her it’s green she doubtfully says that she will try it herself.  She tells me to cut out flowers she has drawn and will not stop telling me until I have done them. Katie tries to assert herself over her friends but is still learning how to do this without hurting them – she’s seen as bossy.  She knows Thursday is the day she comes for therapy, and the day that her mother struggles to find parking at her little brother’s school. Thursdays are consistent for her – she needs structure and regularity.  Her mood is changeable though, and I can never be sure if I will be met with a hug (7 months down the line she now hugs) when I see her on the playground, or whether she will outright ignore me.  If she doesn’t feel like saying hello that day, she probably won’t.

But, (and there’s always a but), she’s charismatic, has amazing leadership potential (provided she’s encouraged in a positive way), is strong, thoughtful, holds high standards, is selective with tasks and with friends, is curious and opinionated.  She has learnt to check with others if they want to complete certain tasks, as opposed to just telling them what to do, and she is empathic.


How can you identify if your child is spirited, or just going through a phase?

In her book, ‘Raising Your Spirited Child (Harper Collins, 2009),’ Mary Sheedy Kurcinka says “The word that distinguishes spirited children from other children is more. They are normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, and uncomfortable with change than other children (p. 9).

In addition, irregular, active and moody are characteristics that are heightened in spirited children.  Like Katie will choose to hug on one day and not on others, intense children experience feelings in polar opposites, with very little middle ground.  Spirited children are persistent.  They know what they want, and when they want it.  They are self and internally directed, and are not easily swayed on matters that are important to them.  They may appear to be self-righteous and unyielding. Spirited children are sensitive too and they are often sensitive to smells, textures, lights or changes in mood.  They are sensitive to your feelings too, and can easily take on how you’re feeling as their feelings.  Spirited children are perceptive – they notice everything and are often accused of not listening as they get caught up in other activities and fail to complete the tasks they are initially given. Spirited children struggle with change, but at the same time cannot always operate to a schedule or plan.  Katie knows what happens on Thursdays, and likes the consistency, but still cannot dress herself in the morning even though she knows that’s what she needs to do before breakfast.  Spirited children are active (either overtly or subtly) and their mood is changeable.  As with Katie, spirited children may like you on one day and may not want to know you the next.


How did my child become spirited?

Children are born with a specific temperament and personality.  One’s temperament can be affected by their mother’s temperament, response to pregnancy and feelings about their child when he/she is born, as well as other biological factors.  While temperament can be adapted with ‘nurture’ the ‘nature’ aspect is strong.  It’s how they were born and, for the most part, temperament is unchangeable.  However, how you respond to your child and nurture them will make a difference in how they present themselves and handle frustrations. For example, a child with an anxious temperament can develop coping mechanisms through nurture from parents and caregivers.


What to do when you’re pulling your hair out

  • Let your child learn for themselves.
  • Set boundaries and limits
  • Show them you respect them and their point of view – even if you do not necessarily agree.
  • Give your child choices where possible.
  • Explain reasons for rules or punishments.
  • Remain calm. Karen Smith (54), a pre-primary teacher from Pietermaritzburg stresses the importance of picking your battles with spirited children.  Choose which fights are worth fighting.  She explains that spirited children (especially those that are new to the school) will react emotionally to instructions that they do not want to follow.  Let them keep their library book for the second week in a row instead of insisting they change it because it’s the rule. Allow for flexibility.
  • Provide them with Prestick or a stress ball if they cannot concentrate during quiet times.
  • Accept your child’s sensitivity – to mood or textures or lights. Karen Smith explains that when a child is aggravated by seamed socks or a shirt badge, allow them to wear seamless socks.
  • Karen Smith also emphasises the use of sensory materials. “Sensopathic trays are a lifesaver – woodwork and Playdough as well. Allowing your child to use their hands with different textures, but in a playful way is very useful to release anger, tension or frustration.”
  • Use your child’s perceptiveness to help you focus on what is really important, says Karen Smith. Stop with the child who has noticed the one purple lily amongst the hundreds of pink ones at the Botanical Gardens. Appreciate their keen eye for detail and interest.
  • Prepare children for any change in routine.
  • Karen Smith explains that children need to be encouraged to use their words instead of their fists or bodies. They need to learn to express themselves effectively without having to discard their innate spirit.
  • Keep rules and players fair in games. Strong-willed children hate injustice.


Ways to enhance the spirited child’s unique qualities

First and foremost, do not label your child. It may be so much easier to call your child grumps, bossy, a whiner, drama queen, know it all but these labels will stick with them and they place a very negative connotation on your child and their unique characteristics. Try and re-word the labels – assertive instead of stubborn, cautious instead of anxious.

Identify where your child draws their strength from. Are they introverts or extroverts? Introverts and extroverts will draw energy from different places, and their energy level is critical to their well-being and behaviour. They will be more manageable and happier children if they are refuelled.  Focus on your child’s strengths and teach them ways to express their ‘spiritedness’ without damaging their relationships with others.  Teach them to control and manage their own behaviour by identifying their triggers and using coping strategies in order to be confident instead of cocky and a leader instead of bossy.

Spirited children give parents a combination of so much joy and so much torment.  A spirited child’s behaviour needs to be managed in such a way that their liveliness and nature is not squashed, but that they can be socially and interpersonally effective and appropriate in their relationships with others.  Teachers need to offer leeway to spirited children, without allowing them free reign over the classroom. Balance is needed; a balance in the home and classroom between accepting a child’s spirit and encouraging them to be aware of themselves and how they treat others.

Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine


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