The Most Harmful Misconception About Spirited Kids

10:42 am |

Spirited child on swing

I first learned about the term ‘spirited child’ when my Sammy was just about a year old. A friend gave me Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s excellent book, Raising Your Spirited Child, and I couldn’t believe how spot on she was in describing my boy. I had previously discovered the term high need baby, but as Sammy was now moving toward toddlerhood, the term didn’t seem to fit.

I loved the term spirited child, as I found it had a much more positive connotation than high need. It was also a term that people seemed to be quite familiar with (at least Sammy’s teachers were…I guess they had had to deal with one or two other spirited kids in their time!).

But as Sammy has gotten older, I find I have been extremely hesitant to use the term to describe him. Yes, he is still very sensitive, and thrives with a predictable routine. In many ways, he does meet the criteria for a spirited temperament as laid out in Kurcinka’s book.

However something I’ve noticed is that ‘spirited’ – in certain circles – is sometimes being used synonymously with ‘wild’, ‘uncontrollable’ or even ‘bad’. This is the reason I hesitate to use it.

I’ve heard some comments from parents lately that have made me uncomfortable, and they’re in the vein of:

The rules don’t apply to my child…spirited kids can’t be expected to follow the same rules as their peers.

or (and this one makes me very sad):

“I’m so scared my high need baby may end up being spirited.”

This bothers me. Don’t get me wrong: I understand and know firsthand how spirited kids work. Their reactions can certainly be intense, and can actually make them appear to be completely out of control at times. Instead of crying because their feelings are hurt, they may bang their head on the floor, hit or bite their playmate or have an epic temper tantrum.

To put it simply: It’s isn’t always easy having a spirited kid. That said….

Fact #1: Parents of Spirited Kids Aren’t Helpless

I used to feel completely powerless when it came to handling Sammy’s BIG emotions and reactions. I assumed that the techniques and rules that applied to ‘normal’ kids wouldn’t work for Sammy (and admittedly, often they didn’t).

But what I didn’t always fully grasp was that just because a certain set of mainstream rules or best practices didn’t work for him, this didn’t mean there weren’t techniques that would work. And sometimes, mainstream strategies WOULD work, but would take longer than they would with other kids.

In my experience, teaching healthy sleep habits is one example where this is often the case. I’ve worked with many pediatric sleep consultants over the years, some of whom specialize in working with high need babies. Skeptical, I’ve asked several of them, “Does sleep training REALLY work with high need babies?”. Their response is always the same: “Yes, but you need to expect that it will likely be harder and take longer.” (Please note: This is NOT said to put pressure on anyone who chooses not to sleep train. It is meant as an encouragement to parents who are choosing to take this route.)

Another example is when I tried to to teach Sammy the concept of hanging his jacket up when he got home from school. He was 3.5 or 4 years old, and I felt he was old enough to simply hang it on a hook in his room. It took an entire week of practice, complete with 45 minutes a day of crying, fussing and pleading – and this was WITH warnings on the way home from preschool that his jacket would need to be hung before he could have an after-school snack. But, after an entire week, he had figured out that this was what was expected.

I recently contacted a couple of my ‘go to’ experts to ask them their thoughts on what we should realistically expect from our spirited kids. I asked Mary Sheedy Kurcinka if parents are powerless when it comes to teaching our spirited kids proper boundaries and appropriate behaviours. Her response:

“Being “spirited” is never an excuse for poor behavior. It is a tool for understanding.

When you recognize that your child is have difficulty managing a public situation because he is highly sensitive to sound, smells, etc. it is much easier to be empathetic, and help him learn coping skills, such as stepping away, listening to music via headphones so he controls the sound, finding a spot that is less crowded etc.  When you are sensitive to his needs and teach him appropriate coping skills it is called “goodness of fit.”  When children live in an environment that is sensitive and responsive to them, they thrive!”

Research over the past 50 or so years has also shown that so-called ‘difficult infants’, are more susceptible to parenting styles than ‘easy’ babies. In fact, difficult babies who are parented appropriately actually tend to be better-behaved, more social and more academically advanced than their peers in grade one. 

If this doesn’t make you feel powerful, I don’t know what would!!!

Fact #2: Spirited Does Not Equal ‘Bad’

I also asked Judy Arnall, president of Attachment Parenting Canada, discipline expert and author of the soon-to-be-released book Parenting with Patience: Turn Frustration into Connection with 3 Easy Steps if it’s appropriate to think of ‘spirited’ as ‘uncontrollable’:

Their intensity means that they react to limits and boundaries with hurricane force, but they do settle into acceptance.  And they get better as they age on toning down their displays of anger and frustration.  The persistence characteristic is where they really shine as older children.  When others give up, they keep going.  My two spirited children in university have faced all kinds of disappointments in dealing with bureaucracy and I am constantly amazed at how they plug away and carry on.  Sensitivity is another area that they shine at.  They make great friends because they notice other’s feelings and respond. My three spirited children (first, third and fifth) are lovely to parent at 23, 19 and 12.  It does get better!”

As the proud mom of a 7.5 year old spirited son, I can honestly say that having a spirited child is an honour. Until he was about 4, he was….a challenge. He was exhausting, and there were many days I cried because I felt so helpless in knowing how to parent him. I certainly didn’t see his spirited temperament as a blessing.

But as I’ve said many times on this blog, as he’s learned to cope with his big feelings and frustrations, he’s become an amazing, rule-sensitive, empathic little dude (you can read more about this here: This is Not the Child I Dreamt of).

As these high need babies grow into spirited kids, they gradually – with your help – learn to follow the rules, respect those around them, and cope with their big feelings. For more on how these spirited kids develop from infanthood to adult, see this post by Judy Arnall: Characteristics of the Spirited Child.

In the coming months, I have made it one of my goals to provide you with more information on exactly HOW you can parent your spirited child to give him or her the best chance of success.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your story of having a spirited child. What has been the hardest thing for you? What has been the biggest blessing? 

Image courtesy of  Alice Carrier under CC 2.0

Holly Klaassen has been running The Fussy Baby Site since 2007. Inspired to start the site after giving birth to her second child, the site aims to provide support and information to parents of fussy, colicky, high need or 'spirited' babies and kids. The main message of this site? You are not alone! When Holly isn't writing for The Fussy Baby Site, she can be found writing for other businesses on topics related to digital marketing, social media, business, and of course, parenting.

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Category: Spirited Kids

Comments (5)

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  1. Roxy Wrigley says:

    Your post has really hit the nail for me. We've known for a couple of years now that our son is a high spirited child. He's just turned 3. Lately every possible thing related to parenting with him has seemed worse, and so, so hard. I've spent endless hours reading, researching, attempting.. and failing.. and feeling like a failure of a mother. It doesn't help that nearly every day because I don't know how to handle the sudden meltdowns, the refusal to listen, anything that he doesn't like, I end up yelling at him, several times a day. It's awful, and I often end up in tears feeling like a terrible mother who doesn't understand her child at all. I'm very keen to learn more and will be closely following in the next few months.

    • Holly says:

      I will do what I can Roxy, because I definitely understand what you’re going through! There’s an card you may have seen on Facebook that sums it up well for me: “You make it difficult for me to be the parent I always imagined I would be”. I thought I would have a calm, peaceful, happy home, and for the first 2-3 years it didn’t always feel that way!! I can now say our home and life is very peaceful, so there is definitely hope!

  2. Jeb says:

    I’ve been crying these last few nights in fear and anxiety that I’m totally screwing up my two year old boy. My husband and I knew our boy was high needs just weeks after he was born, but I never anticipated such a willful, demanding, intense toddler. Diaper changing is like bull fighting. I don’t even know why I’m saying these things. No one I’m around understands. Anyway, last night, out of desperation, an acquaintance agreed to watch my little boy. It was for a little over 2 hours so I could show my work at a local gallery. She has a boy around the same age and we thought they would have fun playing for a bit. After my husband went to pick him up I knew something went terribly wrong. Apparently my son (who’s much larger and stronger than others his age) bullied my friend’s little boy. He hit and scratched, pushed and pulled. He’s never been like that with anyone. That is, except for me. I was mortified and ashamed. It’s not my son’s fault, it’s mine. My poor spirited kid has two extremely introverted parents. Luckily my husband exercises extreme patience and understanding. Me, on the other hand, I have non. Im quick to overwhelm and mentally break. I reach a point, all too often, where I yell and even spank. (After intense research and realizing this doesn’t do any good for anyone, that I’ve been doing it all wrong, I’ve stopped spanking and am still trying to figure out how to find balance.) No one’s told me how to do this. I have no idea what I’m doing and my futile attempts seem worthless. But then, my son will squeal in delight when he sees a ladybug, hug his dog so sweetly, grabs my ears to turn my face and plant a sticky, peanut butter kiss right on my lips. Tiny and rare those moments may be, it’s what keeps me from packing my bags and making my way into the woods where I’d end up a 99 year old cabin dweller with 500 cats. I’ve just went on a seemingly endless diatribe about how I feel like I’m failing to the world. I guess it’s just to say, this journey is fucking hard and this little snippet from the world wide web has made me feel a little less alone and a little less ashamed. So, thank you.

  3. Sav says:

    Jen as I read your comment tears filled my eyes because so much of what you shared resonated with me. I have a 5 and 1/2 month old son and I feel like I’m barely coping. Sometimes I feel like God is punishing me… I even regret having a child. And I’m terrified that if I have another (he is my first) that they may be high needs too. If that was the case, id probably have a nervous breakdown. Sorry to be so depressing but I really need some help!!!

  4. Heixi says:

    I can relate and feel both of your pain. I have tears myself. My daughter is now 8 and its still difficult, but I learned alot over the years about her sensory processing disorder and being a spirited child. I felt all alone, nobody understood, we didn’t have too many successful play days, she would bite me and I couldn’t get her off me, we couldn’t go to stores or restaurants because everything bothered her, she didn’t sleep through the night until she was 3 and was up every 30 to 45 minutes every night prior to that and so much more. I was loosing my mind and I felt everyone thought it was me making this all up, yet people admitted later when they would see improvement they would comment. I literally feel all alone, nobody understands. Well, now I’m a single mom…still struggling even more than ever. Just imagine a spirited child that’s a daddy’s girl being faced with all that she has. I believe all of us need a support group. I’m reading the book Raising Your Spirited Child and I wish I read this earlier in her life, but didn’t know such a thing existed. I just thought it was the sensory processing disorder and a strong will child. I wish you the best and give your self a pat on the back. Try to focus on all the wonderful qualities, take lots of deep breaths, give yourselves deserve it and most importantly have faith that it will get better. We must learn ways to cope a little better, parent differently where we see positive change. Wow, Danny mean to leave such a long comment. I guess it gave me some relief in sharing with someone that knows how I feel. Lol