“We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.” — Susan Cain “Quiet”

We might have a hard time believing that the expectations we have for our child’s behavior can unintentionally cause that behavior. In particular, with a spirited child, his success can be positively impacted by his parents’ expectation of good things. A good place to start is the way in which we describe our children, paying close attention to the words we use.

Unfortunately, spirited children tend to be labeled negatively. Some of the labels used to describe them are: manipulative; demanding; bratty; spoiled; entitled; irrational; whiny; bossy; mouthy; disobedient; obstinate. These very labels can keep your child and you stuck, with you unable to think of anything positive to say about your child.

Given temperament is the key when we’re describing “spirited” children, there are things that are useful to observe. Let’s look at what shapes the negative profiles that keep us stuck. Children are never going to tell us they’re intense or challenging, or that they find change and transitions difficult. Their behavior is what tells us, if/when we’re paying close attention. The skill most essential for parents of spirited kids is understanding their behavioral cues. You need to be acutely aware of your child’s signals, ensuring you can respond as needed to prevent more problems. Your success will be determined by careful listening, watching, and, most importantly, a sensitive heart.

Although each spirited child is unique, there are some similar features, such as they experience emotions very deeply and intensely. Their senses are very acute; smells, textures, sounds, sights, tastes, and feelings often are heightened beyond what others experience. Most of them detest changes or surprises, for being caught unprepared is the absolute worst for them. They are, quite simply, more in every way. It’s important to observe them through that lens, viewing them as they are, rather than as you wish they would be. Try as you might, you cannot transform them into an “easier” child by yelling, punishing, berating, criticizing, judging. In fact, the more you chastise and lecture on how difficult he/she is, the worse your child will feel. Thus, those negative expectations of her/his behavior will unwittingly cause her/him to act out more negatively.

Helping your child be successful requires adopting some strategies that work with your child’s temperamental traits. For example, if your child is spirited and intense, a reward system, such as a sticker chart, will not teach him how to soothe himself, or how to manage his intensity. Just as a time-out will not help a child who resists getting dressed in the morning, complaining her clothes don’t “feel good,” these children need to understand their sensitivity, without feeling judged or bad. They need to be supported in learning strategies that help them either reduce their triggers or avoid them altogether.

Learning any new skills requires lots of practice. You will need to assume a fresh perspective, labeling your spirited child with positive attributes rather than thinking of him/her with negative, defeating images. First, consider whether you describe your child in ways that elicit strong, positive visions — such as: intelligent; creative; perceptive; a leader; charismatic; engaging — OR do you frame him/her as: difficult; argumentative; loud; shifty; bossy; too talkative; shy?

Then address your own temperament, being honest about the characteristics that most clearly describe yourself. Do you have strong emotional reactions? When you’re involved in an activity, can you easily stop when interrupted? Are you acutely aware of sounds, smells, tastes, temperature differences, reacting easily to these? How well does your temperament fit with your child’s?

Many of the negative traits we see in children are traits valued in adults. As these adults were growing up, they began identifying their strengths, believing in their self-worth and abilities. This really works well when we change how we label our children — accepting them for who they are, switching our perception of him/her. It can be quite contagious — when your child is behaving in a way that your typical reaction is “He is so difficult and demanding,” view him through a different lens. Rather than thinking he’s doing this intentionally to you, a positive vision might help you be more tolerant and understanding. One step at a time; the first step is reframing the labels from negative to positive. Practice, practice, practice.

“Being alert to temperamental differences and understanding how they require different caregiving approaches are crucial to nurturing children’s healthy emotional growth. A better understanding of how temperament works can help us maintain our own patience and positive attitudes as caregivers. Differences in temperament, even at the extremes, are in the normal range of behavior.” — Stella Chess, MD

I’d love your questions!