Spirited kids. You’ve heard of them, right? It’s like high-needs, only it sounds better. Instead of saying they’re needy or sensitive or quirky or (heaven forbid) difficult, we say they’re spirited. Whatever that means.
What it actually means is they’ll be a holy terror to their parents till some indefinite age far in the future when they gain enough maturity to focus their intensity, at which point they will invent electricity or the internet or solar-powered airplanes. Whichever of those hasn’t been invented yet. I’m not really sure, because my brain is fried. Because I’m the parent of a spirited child.
Don’t get me wrong. Spirited kids are special. They really are. They’re brilliant and funny and energetic and creative and intense. My daughter amazes me with some of the stuff she can do. She does paintings that belong in the High Museum (and I swear that’s not just her mom talking. I don’t even like art). She learned to read before she turned four. And her current life plan is to start a business building robots. When she’s five.
But also? She is really hard to parent. And I’m pretty sure most of the time I’m doing it wrong. If your kid is spirited, you know exactly what I mean. The parenting techniques that are supposed to work with kids — that do work with most kids — don’t work with them. We parents of spirited kids have to ignore the experts and figure out what works for our kids.
Sound familiar? Maybe these will too:
1. Your child doesn’t sleep. Not as a newborn, not as a toddler, not as a child. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re the parent and you have to stay awake with them to make sure they don’t try to fry some eggs for a midnight snack or climb to the top of the china cabinet to get that glass vase down and see what it sounds like if they hit it against the floor (because they would. Do that). Do intense kids just need less sleep? Probably not. The problem is that they’re too smart. They’re thinking so much, so fast, that their brains can’t slow down enough to sleep.
Best way to deal with it? Distract them from themselves. Our daughter listens to audiobooks while she falls asleep. They stay on all night long. At full volume. Which yes, we can hear in our room. But she stays in bed. Totally worth it.
2. Your child’s tantrums are longer and more intense. Every toddler throws tantrums, right? But there are tantrums and there are tantrums. When my daughter was two, she never threw tantrums. Not anything I considered a tantrum, anyway. She’d get upset, and I’d breastfeed her, and she’d calm down. But she made up for it when she was three.
It’s normal for a three year old to throw a fit because you gave her the “wrong” kind of juice. But if your three year old throws a fit because you filled her cup three-quarters full instead of half-full of orange juice, and dumping out the excess doesn’t help, and the screaming continues for three straight hours, and then just as it starts to slow down it starts again because you put her cup on the wrong spot (even though you put it exactly where it had been a minute before), well, then she might be spirited.
Solution? I don’t know. Hide. Give yourself a time-out in the closet. At least then she’ll be pounding on the closet door instead of hitting you.
3. Your child hates change. This is also normal for young children. But I’m talking any change. Even expected changes that happen every day, like the transition from waking up to eating snack. Lots of kids have trouble with transitions. But if every little step in your day seems to take three times longer than it takes for other friends with kids (don’t even bother comparing to yourself before you had kids, because that doesn’t count), then you might be dealing with spirit. If just getting into the car seat requires an elaborate transition ritual involving a story, a song, a dance, a sticker, and precisely six Cheerios counted out one by one, then you might be having more than normal difficulty with change.
Your response? Count the darn Cheerios. Trust me. It’s easier than the alternative.
4. Your child never gives up. This is a good trait. Really. One they have in common with Winston Churchill, Batman, and the Little Engine That Could. This is the reason why spirited kids become adults who change the world. But in the meantime, it will drive you nuts. They will wear you down. When they decide they want something, they will beg and beg for days. Actually weeks. And they’re like elephants — they never forget. Six months later, they’ll see that same toy in the grocery store and start crying because they still want it.
Solution? Stay strong, my friend. Stick to your guns. And never, ever say no unless you really, really mean it. Learn to say “maybe” or “we’ll see” or “let’s talk about it” unless your real answer is “over my dead body.” Because if your child decides he really wants it, he will Beg. You. To. Death. Choose what hill you want to die on.
Because when it comes down to Parent vs. Spirited Toddler? My money’s on the toddler.
5. Your child is highly focused. When he wants to be, that is. Every once in a while, his interests will align with yours, and then life will be really easy for a while. But most of the time, he will be highly focused on spreading his artwork all over the kitchen floor while you are trying to make dinner. Don’t worry. You’ll learn to work around it. And whatever you do, don’t interrupt. I know you think he’s just making a mess. But really he’s painting the Sistine Chapel. How do you think Michelangelo would have reacted if the pope had told him to clean up his scaffolding at the end of every day? He would have thrown a tantrum too. And then the pope would have gone to hide in the closet.
6. Your child’s schedule is unpredictable. I remember when my play group started planning meetings around everyone’s nap schedules. I was like, nap schedule? You mean you actually know when your child is going to take a nap? I couldn’t begin to guess when my daughter was going to sleep. Or wake up. It was different every day.
Can you put a spirited kid on a schedule? You can try. I spent a lot of time googling “ideal schedule for such-and-such age” and then trying to follow it. I even tried waking her up at 8 in the morning so she’d then (theoretically) be ready for a nap at 1. Then I’d try for two hours to put her to sleep, and she’d fall asleep at 3, when her nap was supposed to be over. At which point I had to decide whether to wake her up so she’d (theoretically) be ready for bed sooner or let her sleep and know that she’d be going to bed late. And by “late” I mean “after midnight.” After which I had to decide whether to wake her up again at 8 the next morning.
But hey, highly creative people often sleep less, right? Especially when they’re in the middle of a project. At 18 months, she was probably already planning that robot business.
7. Your child has a lot of energy. All kids have more energy than adults. This is because they are parasites who draw energy out of their parents like vampires suck blood. But some kids can spend a day playing at home in the yard and still go to bed that night. My daughter cannot stay home. She has to go out somewhere she can run, jump, play with other kids, and throw heavy things. A “relaxing” day at home will end with one of us climbing the walls. Either she will climb the walls to get to the bottle of Elmer’s glue I put on a high shelf because she wants to make a costume by gluing her favorite dresses together, or I will climb the walls as an alternative to hiding in the closet. So I can watch the chaos from a safe distance.
Do spirited kids ever outgrow their intensity? No. But they do learn to handle it better. Most of the time. Really. My daughter is so much easier now than she was a year ago. She can listen to reason (sometimes). And she can sit still and focus on things like putting together snap circuits or gluing 3,000 sequins onto a piece of paper one by one. Someday, your child will gain some measure of control over that intense energy.
Till then, the best thing to do is enjoy the ride. And be patient. And keep telling your child that you love her no matter what, even when she’s mad and throws a tantrum and hits you and when you trip on the artwork she left lying all over the floor. And then do yoga breaths in the closet.
And also? Keep reminding your kid that when she does start that robot business, she owes you one.
I am so gonna score a free robot.