When Jennifer Weiss of Airdrie, Alta., put a dish of parsnips on the family dinner table for the first time, eight-year-old Mackenzie went from calmly chatting to a total meltdown. “He was adamant, arms crossed, tears rolling down his face,” Weiss says. Mackenzie’s mood swings, she says, are typically intense: “from happy as can be to a pile on the floor — screaming that life is unfair and we hate him — in seconds.”
Like 10 percent of all children, Mackenzie, a sweet, loving boy, is what is known as a “spirited child.” These are the kids we refer to as “challenging,” “strong-willed” or worse — traditionally they’ve been slapped with labels like “difficult” or “problem child.” Spirited children may be more intense, more persistent and more energetic than average. “These kids live life bigger and bolder than other kids,” says Michael Popkin, author of Taming the Spirited Child. This can mean they’re enthusiastic and determined. But when they’re little, this temperament often translates into behaviour that’s frustrating for parents — for example, a baby who screams when you don’t hold him, a toddler who never sits still, or a preschooler who falls to pieces because her sandwich was cut into triangles instead of diamonds.
“It’s natural for a parent to wonder: ‘Did I do something to make him act that way?’ But parents need to know it’s not their fault that their child is spirited,” says Sara King, a child psychologist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “It’s just the way that genetics and environment mix up in that particular child.”
Parents of spirited kids can learn how to manage this temperament. And as your child gets more independent, he’ll start doing these tricks to help himself. “Right now it’s driving you crazy,” says Popkin. “But if that child learns to use those traits constructively, they’ll be real assets for the child in the future.”
Spirited kids seem to have extra batteries. They’re hands-on involved with what’s going on around them. When my spirited daughter was younger, it was a Herculean effort to get her to sit for long at the dinner table, and even as she tried to settle in bed, her legs kept moving.
Why it’s a good thing This is a child who’s brimming with energy, is curious about the world and may be driven to excel in sports.
What to do “I’m a great believer in letting your kids play outside in the backyard,” says King. “Let them go to a space where it’s OK to be running around and burning off that energy.” Make sure it’s safe. You can also enrol your child in soccer, karate or hockey, providing him with a positive outlet for his high activity level.
Of course, there are times when even busy children are going to have to sit still. Calgary parent educator Celia Osenton says it helps to give your kid frequent breaks to move about. “Do things in small blocks,” she says. Suggest that the teacher give your child excuses to be mobile, picking him to hand out papers or collect the crayons. At the supper table, he can be the designated gofer if someone wants more milk or needs something from the kitchen.
What not to do Don’t set your child up for failure. If you know his energy is off the charts, don’t expect him to sit through a four-hour car trip without frequent stops, or walk sedately by your side in the grocery store. It just ain’t gonna happen.
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