Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #43: Raising Your Spirited Child

Dear kids,

Someday, this stuff will come in handy. Trust me.

Favorite Quotes:

  • “But seriously, I never realized how easy it is to label her, and I’m beginning to see the impact it has on her. She’s the youngest, the surprise baby in our family. She is so different from the other two that we have always referred to her as ‘Wild Woman.’ Yesterday, my mother reprimanded her for jumping on the couch. Hazel excused herself by saying, ‘Grandma, it’s okay. I’m supposed to be the wild one.’”
  • Like a swirling hurricane, negativity is devastating to relationships. It is so powerful that psychologist John Gottman found when listening to couples’ conversations that if there was a ratio of 2.9 negative statements for every positive statement, he could predict that they were on the road to divorce. On the other hand, couples with healthy relationships had a ratio of only one negative comment for every five positive statements.
  • Starting today, you can choose to stop using words that project a negative image of your child. It really is not that far a leap from picky to selective or even from obnoxious to dramatic.
  • In fact, developmental psychologist J. J. Goodnow found in her research that parents whose children were very socially competent did not see their children’s occasional social “tussles” as signs of aggressiveness. Instead, the missteps were attributed to something more temporary, for example, a high-energy child having played for too long. As a result, rather than getting angry with their children, they simply made a mental note to help them avoid getting into trouble in the future by pointing out when to call it quits. That optimistic perspective kept parent and child working together.
  • You can teach yourself to use your new labels when you talk about your kids and when you discipline them. To the five-year-old who is refusing to wear the new outfit Grandma sent, you can say, “You do have a strong sense of style.” And to the eight-year-old who refuses to go to bed until she has finished the last chapter in her book, “You are persistent and committed to your goals.” I realize you might be thinking, Isn’t this child just “getting her way”? Let me emphasize that this is the beginning of the conversation—not the ending. Ultimately, you will teach your child the skills to be flexible and to be a creative problem solver. But for those lessons to be heard and processed, your child has to be calm. That won’t be the case if you are upset, thinking she is being
  • “It was amazing!” she exclaimed. “When I used positive words to describe Silas, so did my relatives and his teacher. If someone complained, ‘Silas is awfully loud,’ I would respond, ‘He is dramatic, isn’t he? Let’s get him outside where we can appreciate that more.’ They’d be taken aback, but after a few minutes they would agree he really can be spectacular. After I’d done it a few times, I overheard my mother say, ‘Silas, your dramatic side is coming out again. Let’s turn on some music and dance together.’
  • Even at school when his teacher told me he was stubborn, I nodded in agreement but said, ‘We find him to be very tenacious at home too.’ ‘I never thought of it in that light,’ the teacher responded. ‘I guess it isn’t all that bad, is it?’ It really changed the way she saw him. It’s contagious!”
  • Researchers tell us that when we get caught in an adversarial relationship with our children, we end up with more, not fewer, behavior issues in the long run. More troubling, we fall out of love with our sons and daughters. We do not want
  • Have you ever wondered whether parents who seem to stay calmer have a secret? They do. It’s how they view their child. “I recognized this is who he is,” Amanda told me one day. “He’s very sensitive. I realize that a lot of the time he’s scared about something. He’s different from other kids. When I think about it that way, I have much more compassion for him.”
  • One day while observing in a classroom, I heard the teacher, Julie Nelson, say to a child, “Oh my gosh, you had so much stress when you came to school today. I could see it in your shoulders.” The girl nodded solemnly and whispered, “Oh, Ms. Nelson, I thought it was going to last forever.” Julie, a skilled educator, knows that by describing what she sees, she is teaching the children to notice and name their own cues. Ultimately
  • Three-year-old Al is a blond, tousled-haired mini-tornado. “I’ve got gusto,” he informed me. “My dad says it’s okay to do things with gusto—as long as you don’t hurt anybody!” “I’m full of it,” a five-year-old shared, “just like my Grandpa Rick.”
  • John Gottman from the Gottman Institute, the research demonstrates that children who receive these types of messages are “emotion coached” and are more effective at soothing themselves and focusing attention. As a result, they do better in school and with peers, experience fewer behavior problems, and demonstrate more positive emotions.
  • WATER: “When Silas starts to lose it, it’s into the bathtub,” Laura explained. “There are days the kid looks like a little raisin because he’s been in there three times, but it snaps him right out of it. I’ve got two other kids. They don’t need baths the way Silas does, but if necessary I just put them in the tub with him. He needs it and they enjoy it.”
  • IMAGINATION: Most spirited children have a vivid imagination. You can use it to help them moderate their intensity and have fun.
  • SENSORY ACTIVITIES: Spirited kids are very sensuous. They enjoy activities that allow them to touch, smell, taste, hear, or see things. Using their senses can calm them.
  • Older children can benefit from listening to their favorite music, chewing gum, sucking from a straw, rubbing the silk edge of their favorite blanket or stuffed animal (there is no need to “give them up”—they can just be kept private), or using a favorite lotion or oil, especially lavender. Gardening or baking are also favorite sensory activities for all ages.
  • PHYSICAL EXERCISE AND REPETITIVE MOTION: “I was trying to get four-year-old Derrick to put on his shoes so we could go pick up his sister,” Nadeen told me. “He was dragging his feet and mumbling as I was trying to rush him along. I told him we really needed to go so we wouldn’t be late, and he said, ‘But, MOM, what are we going to do about the bees in my body?’ “Shocked, I responded, ‘Are you feeling bees in your body?’ “‘Yes!’ he exclaimed. “‘Well, let’s get rid of them! Should we bounce?’ And we proceeded to bounce on the mini-trampoline. Five minutes later he got into the car without a fuss.”
  • DEEP BREATHING: Even toddlers can learn to use deep breathing to calm their system. Simply say to them, “Breath in.”
  • Unfortunately, we’ve turned time-out into a punishment for kids. Instead of being an opportunity to teach our children to take a break in order to regain control, it has become a dreaded order. “Go to your room and don’t come out until I tell you to!”
  • The teachable moment will come—after he’s calm. If he attempts to leave before he is calm, return him to the basket, once again assisting him in finding something to do until his body is peaceful. Children have to be taught what a relaxed body looks like. Point out that when they are calm their eyes will look at you. Their arms and legs will be still. They can listen and answer. Their voice is quiet. Time-out is not over until you can both see these things and that sense of peacefulness fills their bodies.
  • I headed toward the boys. Four-year-old Wyatt clutched the iPad to his chest, twisting away from six-year-old Kyle’s clawing grasp. Seeing me approach, Kyle shrank back. “I will help you.” I said, moving closer. Kyle glanced at me, a look of confusion in his eyes, as though deciding whether to run or yell in defense. But I bent low and calmly continued, “I saw your hand hit him. What were you trying to tell him?” In that moment he turned toward me, open to working with me. Why didn’t I reprimand them for fighting? Was I just letting them get away with poor behavior? Before the lessons can be taught, we have to draw our spirited children to us. If we move in like a bulldozer, their response will intensify to match ours. That’s when the yelling morphs into kicks. Nimble bodies dart from our grasp, and the words I hate you stab us in the heart. Spirited children have to know that the adult approaching them is someone coming to help. Not an enemy or adversary who is going to yell, threaten, or grab them, but someone who will help them calm down and figure out what to do. Someone who is saying words like: I will help you.”
  • “Leo likes to rinse the dishes, which is great. But if someone has left a dirty dish in the sink, he freaks out. I want him to be flexible. So I’ve been trying to tell him it’s not a big deal or suggest he use the sprayer and the other sink. But he just gets more upset. This morning it happened again, but this time I caught myself and said, ‘Yuck, there’s a dirty dish in there. I will help you. What do you need?’ He calmed right down. Then he said to me, ‘Dad, why don’t I just use the sprayer.’” Shaking his head, Rob added, “I guess a little empathy goes a long way.”
  • In my experience, most of the tantrums experienced by spirited children are actually spillover meltdowns. They are not premeditated. They are not intended to manipulate.
  • STOP TO LISTEN: Your first reaction when a pillow has been thrown at your head might be to grab your child and scream, “What were you thinking?” A few threats or consequences could be tossed into the mix as well to ensure that your child clearly understands how upset you are with her. I’m going to advise you to resist.
  • Don’t get me wrong. Violent and destructive behaviors are unacceptable. You are going to deal with the behavior—but this is not the teachable moment—that will come later.
  • First you have to help her recover from the physiological blast of hormones coursing through her body. Until her body is calmed, she cannot look at you, hear you, or think.
  • Ask your child questions like: “What is the reason you do not want to take a shower?” Or, “What about these socks do you not like?”
  • Whatever the trigger, identifying it allows you to stop it if you can. Naming it helps your child understand what is happening to him.
  • WORKING TOGETHER: REDO—GOING BACK FOR THE TEACHABLE MOMENT When your child has experienced a meltdown, it is critical to go back after she is calm to teach her more appropriate words to use and actions to take in the future.
  • CLARIFY THE EXPECTATION. Expectations focus on your family’s values. You can
  • REDO WITH TODDLERS: A redo with toddlers needs to be adjusted for their developmental stage. Everything in a toddler’s brain is screaming, “Do it! Try it! Find out what will happen!” They also have short memories. Every time, you have to stop them, show them what to do instead. When a toddler throws a truck at you, hold the truck and say, “You hand me the truck.” Invite her to practice placing it in your hand. (Odds are someone has been teaching her to throw a ball. She hasn’t figured out
  • MAKING AMENDS: If there has been a “victim” during the spillover meltdown, the redo will also need to include making amends.
  • WHEN YOUR CHILD IS HITTING, KICKING, AND THROWING THINGS: If you change your approach to stop and listen first, you will drastically reduce the odds that your child will get to the point of hitting, kicking, or destroying things. But if despite your efforts to understand what is happening, he still gets to that point, you’ll have to stop him. Again, in a firm but calm voice say to him, “If you cannot stop yourself, I will help you.” Or, “I cannot allow you to hurt yourself or others.” Take a younger child onto your lap. Sitting on the floor, legs outstretched in front of you, place him facing the same direction as you are. Wrap your legs around his so he cannot kick you. Fold your arms around him so he cannot hit you. Hold firmly so that he cannot head butt or bite you, but do not squeeze. Breathe deeply. Tell yourself the following: “He’s flooded.” “His brain has been hijacked.” “He’s not doing this ‘to me.’” These thoughts will help you remain calmer. Remember, on an airplane you are directed to put on your oxygen mask first. Calm yourself so you can calm him. It is likely that your child will scream “Let me go!” Assure him that as soon as his voice is soft and his legs and arms are still, you will.
  • WHEN YOUR CHILD YELLS, OR SWEARS AT YOU, OR CALLS YOU NAMES: It’s not unusual in the midst of a meltdown for your child to hurl nasty words. This is actually progress—he’s using words, not hitting. But of course they are not acceptable. Don’t take the bait. You will deal with this later; right now you are attempting to help him pull out of the dive. In a firm but gentle voice say to him, “I know you are really mad at me right now. Try that again. Say it in a way that makes me want to listen.” Then wait.
  • BE PRESENT AND OFFER TOUCH: Not every child’s brain goes into “fight” mode when experiencing a spillover meltdown; some shut down like a deer in headlights and simply need time and space to recover. Your presence is essential. I was observing at a child-care center one morning when a mom dropped off her preschooler. The little girl started to scream and kick the minute Mom started out the door. I recognized a slow-to-adapt child who was having trouble with a transition, but the teachers and her mom weren’t familiar with temperament and didn’t understand what was happening. They sent her to the corner to cry it out on her own while they went on with their business. I moved close to her. She didn’t know me, and I sensed that she did not want me to touch her. Keeping my body relaxed, I told her I would not come near her unless she wanted me to. I sat on the floor close by, present and available. Gradually she moved nearer until her head rested on my lap. Only then did she stop crying.
  • GIVE YOUR CHILD SPACE: Sometimes, rather than soothing, touch may add to the intensity of spirited children. This is especially true for those who are more introverted. These children need their space. They’ll let you know by withdrawing, or pushing your hand away. Or they’ll say things like: “Don’t look at me!” “Go away.” Or, “Get out of my room!” If this is true for your children, and they are preschoolers or older and not hurting themselves or anything else, respect their boundaries and move away slightly. Let them know you’ll be checking back. You are available. You care. Recognize
  • You can tell him, “I will not touch you, but I will stay near you until your body is calm.”
  • ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO MOVE: When your child slips into a spillover meltdown, blood rushes to his muscles, and adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones, are released into his system, telling him to



Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.


Being in love is harder than it sounds. Really, it’s a challenge on every level. Get Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby on Amazon now.


Buy stuff on Amazon and support this blog. Easy enough, right? Just click here. Anything you buy counts.

One comment