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50 Secrets To Parenting A Spirited Child

50 Secrets To Parenting a Spirited Child

Kids don’t come with instructions, obviously. But with high need or spirited kids, we REALLY need them.

You’ve likely already discovered that the usual strategies and techniques that work on more easygoing kids sometimes don’t work with high need, strong-willed or “difficult” kids.

This can leave you asking, “How on earth am I supposed to parent this kid??”.

This post is a compilation of 50 of the most important things I’ve learned about parenting a high need, spirited or sensitive baby or child. I start off with tips specifically geared toward infants, and move up to toddlers and older throughout the post.


1. Try not to worry about what other people think of your child or your parenting

Research shows that around 40% of kids are born more easygoing, while only 10% are born “difficult”.  The parents of those easygoing kids will never understand what it’s like to have a high need baby, and shouldn’t be expected to! Do what you need to do, and know there are a bunch of us doing the same thing.

2. If you’re at all concerned there’s something else going on besides colic or a “high need” temperament, always check with your doctor

However, at some point it’s helpful to let go of trying to figure out the cause, and instead change your expectations. Instead of constantly trying to “fix” your baby, try to accept him for who he is, not who you wish he was.

3. Try to get your baby to bed earlier at night

By “early”, I mean as early as 6pm for infants. High need babies tend to wear us down, physically and emotionally, so having the evening off can be a lifesaver. And not only that – while spirited kids tend to fight sleep, they often need it even more than other kids.

4. Reach out to other parents who are raising a high need or spirited baby

Trust me…this can be a lifesaver! (Here’s a link to our fussy baby group)

5. Don’t write off sleep training with a high need baby

It can be done! I have often heard from parents who said, “My baby is way to sensitive for sleep training…he’d cry for hours!”. Yet these same parents later tell me it not only worked, but that it was easier than they thought, and their high need baby was MUCH happier after. Check out my Sleep Training and High Need Babies ebook for tips, advice and stories from other parents who have successfully helped their fussy baby learn to sleep.

6. Use this simple mantra…

Try to remind yourself often: “They aren’t giving me a hard time, they’re having a hard time“.

7. Is your baby high need or just overtired?

The “symptoms” of both are surprisingly similar. Click here to learn the difference.

8. Try not to stress about how your baby isn’t like other babies

While they can be a lot more work now, it all pays off: they often turn out to be even more sensitive, compassionate and self-confident than other kids!

9. Don’t underestimate the magic of the “5 S’s”

If you haven’t already, read Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby On The Block book (or watch the DVD). It’s a lifesaver for fussy, colicky or high need newborns! Just remember: if the techniques don’t work right away, don’t give up! Each step needs to be done exactly right in order to work.

10. If possible don’t let your baby nap after 4pm

This usually results in your baby not being tired during their “sleep window”, which tends to occur between 6-8pm…and this means they fall asleep later and often have a more difficult time doing so.

11. If you have a fussy infant or toddler, don’t randomly buy every product you see in the hopes that it will help

Instead, narrow your research by reading the results of our Top Products For Fussy Babies survey.

12. Let go of the idea that your baby was born as a blank slate

Research shows that we are all born with unique temperaments, and those temperaments are somewhat immutable throughout our lives (meaning they don’t change much). Wishing your child were different is completely understandable, but can leave you feeling resentful and frustrated. Instead, try to let go of what “should be” and start dealing with what is.

13. Don’t assume you have to sleep train

If you’ve found ways to get your child to sleep, celebrate! As long as what you’re doing is ok for you, your baby and your family, don’t let anyone make you feel like sleep training is a necessity.

14. When you have a fussy baby, it’s worth trying EVERYTHING to soothe her

Here’s the ultimate list of fussy baby soothing techniques you can try.

15. Use the right kind of swaddling blanket

High need babies are little houdinis! I highly recommend swaddling with a pre-formed swaddle like the Woombie rather than a regular blanket….these are much harder to break out of.

16. Decide ahead of time which behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t

Don’t wait until your child is melting down about something to decide!

17. Read Raising Your Spirited Child

This is the ultimate guide to understanding why your child is the way he is.

18. Be flexible whenever possible

This isn’t the same thing as giving in!

19. Let go of the little things

Will your child a) only wear shorts, regardless of the weather, b) only eat carrot sticks, and refuses all other veggies, or c) only use the red sippy cup (and NEVER the green one?). Let it go. This is the small stuff and just isn’t worth it.

20. Don’t expect your child to always do exactly what you want, when you want it

This is called authoritarian parenting, and just doesn’t work with spirited kids. Instead, set reasonable boundaries ahead of time (see #16) and then help your child stick to those boundaries.

21. Avoid saying “no” to the small things

Very sensitive kids may take no’s very personally, sending them into a full-on meltdown. In her book Kids Are Worth It, Barbara Coloroso offers three alternatives to “no” that work great for spirited kids: 1) Yes, later 2) Give me a minute, 3) Convince me.

22. Read The Explosive Child

For older kids (I’d say 4+) this is an incredible tool for learning how to successfully deal with tantrums and meltdowns.

23. Teach your spirited child the art of negotiating

This will be an extremely important skill as they get older and need to play and work with others outside your family.

24. Be super SUPER clear about your non-negotiable rules and expectations

When I notice my kids are getting confused about what’s expected of them, I write down my rules on the whiteboard in our kitchen. Here’s an example: for some reason, my son started asking for cake for breakfast every morning. Yet every time I would say no, he would act surprised and get upset. I wrote the rule on the whiteboard: “We do not have cake for breakfast. If you ask, I WILL say no.” Magically, he stopped asking!

25. If you feel like you’re going to lose your cool, leave the room

Our anger and frustration only feeds a spirited child’s own anger or frustration. Deal with your anger elsewhere, take a deep breath, and do your best to stay calm (“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos” – L.R. Knost)

26. Establish a flexible routine

Spirited kids thrive on routine. This doesn’t mean you need to have bedtime at the exact time every night, or that you can never change things up. But make sure your child knows approximately what’s going to happen during the day (and night!) and when.

27. Compromise, and teach your child how to as well

Your child will never learn how to compromise unless you show them that you can do it too.

28. An early bedtime isn’t just important for high need babies

Try an early bedtime for your toddler or older spirited child  (6-7 pm for toddlers+ and 7-8 pm for older kids). They need it and so do you.

29. Don’t let your picky eater get you down

It’s your responsibility to provide food, and it’s their responsibility what and how much they eat. Check out Ellyn Sattler’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding for more on this.

30. Never say “never” with a spirited child

Before we have kids (or before we have THIS kid), we may have said we would NEVER do something. With spirited kids, never stop trying new things, and always be open to changing your mind!

31. Try to be on the same page as your partner when it comes to dealing with your spirited child

If you’re not, your child will sense it and will likely act even crazier as a result 🙂

32. Reach out to other parents who are raising a spirited child

Here’s a link to our fussy toddler/preschooler+ group.

33. Get outside as much as possible

Spirited kids tend to have lots of excess energy…and when they don’t have a chance to expend that energy, it can come out in….less constructive ways 🙂

34. Consistency is important, but….

Many times we hear, “If you’re consistent, he/she will eventually get it.” However, if your child isn’t emotionally or developmentally able to do something, being consistent isn’t really going to help. I’m a huge fan of the concept that kids do well if they can.

35. Make it a top priority to get breaks from your kids

This is particularly important if you’re an introvert like me.  If you’re worn down and exhausted, you’re not doing anyone (especially your kids) any favours.

36. Remember that you have SO much influence on your spirited child!

Research shows that children with a “difficult” temperament are disproportionately impacted by parenting. This means we have a lot of influence on how our children turn out. Research also shows that infants and young children who receive good parenting turn out even better by grade one than their “easy” peers.

37. Make sure you eat together at the table as much as possible

Research suggests the best way to encourage picky eaters to try new things is to get them to watch their parents and siblings eating a wide range of foods.

38. What constitutes “good parenting” for spirited kids?

According to Wallace E. Dixon Jr., it’s this: “Difficult temperament requires a different tack altogether, one that involves trying harder, while being patient and tolerant of the difficult child’s unique but demanding personality” (p. 123).

39. Another picky eater strategy…

It’s a proven fact that everything tastes better when it’s served on a “snack plate”. For example, Sammy wouldn’t eat sandwiches or bananas like his sister would. BUT, if I gave him “dragon fingers” (pieces of buttered toast, cut up into sticks), cubed cheese, cut up ham and cut up bananas and called it a snack plate, he’d eat it all. Keep in mind the one cardinal rule of snack plates – there must be a cookie or other treat on the plate, and they must be allowed to eat it whenever they want!

40. Need practical tips for coping with a spirited child?

Check out Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s blog.

41. Check your own emotions before checking your child’s

Sprited kids have been called the “emotional barometers of the home”. They tend to have an almost superhuman ability to notice when we’re angry/hurt/frustrated, and may act out in response. If your child is suddenly acing particularly fussy, whiney or inflexible, ask yourself how YOU’RE doing emotionally – and then take steps to deal with your feelings before you expect them to deal with theirs.

42. Looking for ways to get your child to use up their energy?

Try timed obstacle courses outside. Give them a number of tasks/actions to complete (somersaults, running, skipping, hoping like a bunny, rolling, etc.), and use your phone or a stopwatch to time them. Trust me, they’ll love it!

43. Don’t try to reason with a spirited child in the throes of a tantrum or meltdown

At that point, they’re simply unable to listen to reason. Instead, try getting down on their level and offering tons of empathy (“I know you’re SO frustrated!”).

44. If that doesn’t work, distract, distract, distract

Draw their attention to something else entirely unrelated and make a BIG deal of it. There will be time to talk about feelings and how to do things differently later. For more on this, see my post How Do I Deal With My Spirited Child’s Tantrums?

45. Take these words from Parenting With Reason to heart

“The way you deal with difficult temperament may make all the difference in the world. Treating difficult temperament harshly, with strict, inflexible disciplinary limits, is not likely to be very productive, and may even result in a negative feedback loop, which itself results in outcomes both you and your difficult child may regret.”

46. Help! Where do I start with learning how to parent this kid??

Check out anything about positive parenting or positive discipline…these are great starting points. Also check out my eBook, The Fussy Baby Survival Guide: Practical Strategies For Parenting a High Need Child, Age 0-5.

47. Ever wonder what’s going on in their little brains?

Ever find yourself thinking your child frequently acts in ways you completely don’t understand? Read The Whole Brain Child and/or No-Drama Discipline. Suddenly these things will start to make sense!

48. Yet another picky eater tip (can you tell I have a picky eater?)

Make sure you put at least ONE thing on the table you know he or she will eat. This will seriously cut down on mealtime drama. For instance, I often make sure there is bread and carrot sticks on the table, because I know my son will eat those. If that’s all he ends up eating, at least I know he won’t starve!

49. If you have a child who loves and needs routine, make a wheel of choice

These can be great for helping to establish routines, or even for avoiding tantrums or meltdowns.

50. Try not to get lost in the moment

By this, I don’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the little things in life. I mean that with spirited kids, it’s easy to get discouraged and to feel like you’re failing. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka likes to say that with spirited kids, “It’s about progress, not perfection”. Celebrate the good moments you have with your child, and remember that one day all the struggles will be worth it!


The Fussy Baby Survival Guide
High need babies and spirited kids can be exhausting, but they’re not impossible to parent! That said, we may need to change up our strategies if we want to raise them in a way that respects their unique temperament. The Fussy Baby Survival Guide will walk you through sleep, effective soothing strategies, tantrum management and more!

Click here to check it out now. 

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser * via photopin (license)