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The Spirited Child

If you have never heard the term the spirited child, you are missing out on a wonderful, affirming way of describing a child who is more sensitive, more intense, and more energetic than most.

Sometimes these kids may be described as:spirited child

  • Difficult
  • Demanding
  • Stubborn
  • Unpredictable
  • Strong-Willed, or
  • Wild

The problem with these words are that they place blame on a child who is oftentimes simply struggling to respond to an overwhelming world around them, and to the intense emotions within them.

In her book, Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
encourages us to challenge our perceptions of our child and recognize their temperament for what it is: A set of traits that they are born with.

Following are the four most common traits that define a spirited child, and 3 ‘bonus’ characteristics that many, but not all, spirited children exhibit.


When they’re upset, they scream or shriek, and when they’re happy they squeal with joy. They can be the life of the party, but can also have tantrums that are “raw and enduring”.

Not all intense kids display their intensity outwardly: Some spirited kids internalize their intensity. They may think intensely through each step of what they’re going to do, and display extreme focus.


Kurcinka uses the term ‘locked in’, which I think is absolutely fitting.

Spirited kids are not easily swayed when they have their minds made up. Some may describe it as ‘stubborn’, but it’s so much more than that. It is not a tactic to get something (at least not always!), but rather an extreme commitment to an idea or task.


Spirited kids are often extremely sensitive to sights, sounds, textures and other stimuli. An itchy tag may drive them crazy, a loud, busy store may send them into a crying fit, and their feelings may be hurt extraordinarily easily.

A sensitive child is also often very in tune with the feelings and moods of those around them. Parenting expert Linda Budd calls these kids the family ‘barometers’.

At times I have actually had to question my own anxiety levels when my son starts acting out. After thinking it through, I have often realized that I am indeed anxious about something, and my son’s ‘misbehavior’ is actually a way of responding to my anxiety.


Spirited kids may be very distractible and tend to take in everything around them.

It may take 20 minutes to get their shoes on, or to change their clothes, as they become interested in all the other activities around them. This may be misconstrued as not listening.

Bonus Characteristics

Many (but not all) spirited kids possess these traits as well.


Spirited kids may be slow-to-adapt.

Transitions can be extraordinarily difficult. We’re not just talking big transitions like moves, hospital stays, or a new childcare provider (although certainly these can cause great angst).

Transitioning from the house to the carseat, changing a diaper, putting on clean clothes, ending play time in order to eat…these can all cause frustration and tantrums.

Slow-to-adapt kids needs ample warning before changing activities, and the more you can communicate the day’s schedule to your child, the better. They like to know what’s happening next, and may rebel when they feel something is sprung on them.


This is often especially evident in the sleep habits of spirited kids.

They may wake up and go to sleep at different times every day, and take irregular naps.

The same goes for eating – some days they may eat three good meals, the next they simply refuse to eat. Some days they may like to eat immediately after they wake up, and some days they don’t.

Coming up with a routine or schedule for a spirited child can be very frustrating!

First Reaction

Also known as ‘slow to warm up’.

Their first reaction to anything new, whether it’s a new friend, a new food, or a new experience may be a resounding ‘NO’.

They need time to adjust to new situations, and forcing them into new things simply won’t work. Give them ample time to warm up and they will likely make the first move on their own.


Some spirited kids are extremely serious. They are perfectionists, and will not be happy unless everything goes according to plan. They may come across as critical, but really just have a need to have all their ‘ducks in a row’.

These kids may tend to internalize their feelings rather than wearing their emotions on their sleeves (like many other spirited kids).


Photo credit: Michelle Meiklejohn