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One Thing to Remember When You're Raising a Spirited Child

Photograph by Twenty20

My son wasn't an easy toddler. So when a pre-school teacher referred to him as spirited, I assumed she was just politely saying my kid was difficult. But my son wasn't across the board difficult nor was he bratty. In fact he had an easy time with things that were hard for other kids like sleeping and eating. And yet, he could fall apart for no particular reason, needed endless countdowns and warnings before leaving anything he found fun, and could dig his heels into anything and bring our family's day to a screeching halt.

By the time my son was 3 I was totally wiped out. I couldn't keep up with his seeming endless energy and had flop sweats anytime we had to leave a birthday party or park because I knew that leaving with him could sometimes prove ugly. The countdowns weren't always helpful and sometimes I'd have to make a hasty exit with him under my arm like a screaming little football.

For things to change, I really had to understand how my spirited child operated.

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When another parent mentioned her spirited child and said, "He used to fall apart all the time and leaving any place that was fun was a nightmare. It wasn't until I realized he wasn't a brat, he just had plans in his head that I knew how to deal," I felt like she was describing my kid. Suddenly things started to make sense.

"Plans!" I thought to myself. "Of course, my kid just has plans in his head."

Spirited kids are often told they are being disruptive in school. ... They're not bad seeds, they're kids with plans.

I realized I had resented my son's temperament instead of embracing who he was. His rigidity, which led to meltdowns, came from my rigidity. I wanted him to tow the line and be like other easier kids I saw at the park. I didn't see his spirit as just that, his spirit; I saw it as him being bratty or difficult. When I started to understand my spirited child, he got easier.

He was a big tantrum thrower, and so we first dealt with how to get his tantrums in check. It turns out, a simple hack helped all but end my son's meltdowns. Then I started to realize that he wasn't pushing boundaries or trying to be defiant. Transitions were genuinely difficult for him.

"Plans," I kept hearing in my head. "He's got plans."

So I started to plan less in our days so my son would dig deep into his plans. This made leaving places much easier. Turns out, my kid isn't a kid who can deal well with watching 10 minutes of a show or playing a quick game and then coming back to it later. So I try to build more time for things into his day. I give him room to breathe, making transitions when we need to leave much, much easier.

I tell you this because having a spirited toddler is exhausting and draining. Spirited kids are often told they are being disruptive in school. Sometimes they are, but it's not on purpose. They're not bad seeds, they're kids with plans.

Moms of spirited kids dealing with their kid's meltdowns in Target and protests at the park are often met with the disapproving glances and judgmental stares of parents who don't have spirited children. They simply don't get why your kid can't keep it together. And they assume it's your fault.

But just know that your spirited little one won't always exhaust you, and he or she will grow out of those tantrums. My spirited toddler is now an unbelievably easy 8-year-old. He's still got his spirit, but he's grown out of the rigidity.

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So if your spirited son or daughter is melting down in Trader Joe's or won't put on her shoes before she finishes the Lego set you asked her to put down 30 minutes ago, pat yourself on the back and remember life will get easier each and every day until one day it's easy.

In the meantime, remember your spirited child is desperately trying to keep it together and isn't trying to be difficult. So while leaving a birthday party with him or her might feel like an exorcism now, in a few years it's going to be easier. Your spirited kid has plans. And you're so lucky you get to find out what they are.

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