We've got spirit, how 'bout you?!
It's been exactly two years since I first posted about some of our challenges with parenting an intense child, aka Nathan. There have of course been many highs and lows since then, and today I'd like to share more of our story, along with insights from a book I just read.
During their recent visit, my mom and dad saw firsthand some of the challenges we've been dealing with, and upon returning home, my mom told a co-worker that we have our hands full with Nathan. As my mom explained more details, the co-worker said she was reminded of her daughter, and she recommended that I look into this book.
From the first page, the book (which is nearly 500 pages!) was very compelling to me. I want so much to understand Nathan and to parent him effectively. The author defines a spirited child as a child who is "more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent and energetic," and I would say that all of those words apply to Nathan!
I could totally relate in the introduction when I read about sliding from joy to exasperation in seconds, ten times a day. And unfortunately, I could also relate to the list of reactions many parents feel when responding to a spirited child: fear, confusion, resentment, shame, embarassment, exhaustion, and anger. The book said that spirited kids are that way from the beginning; that even as infants, they are determined and strong. Nathan was definitely born intense. I well remember his loud and sometimes incessant wails in the hospital and beyond!
This book helps you to identify and understand your child's temperament, as well as your own. There is an inventory where you can rate your child and then yourself on 9 different traits of spirited individuals. It then puts you in one of 3 categories: low-key, spunky, or spirited. My score for Nathan put him on the low end of the "spirited" category, which did not surprise me. After reading the book, I realized there must be many kids who are several notches higher than him on some of the traits. When I took the test for myself, I was smack-dab in the middle of the spunky category, and Eric, as expected, landed in the laidback category. I'm not sure what I think of being called spunky, though I have to admit the shoe fit when reading the description. =)
Some other thoughts and notes from the book:
Nathan is who he is, and God created him to be a unique individual. This book reminded me that I can work with him instead of against him. One of the suggestions in the book is to look at traits in a positive light, instead of always thinking of them negatively. For example, intense can also mean enthusiastic or determined, and sensitive can be re-phrased as tenderhearted. The book also mentioned that many of the traits which may exasperate us in young children are often seen as desirable traits in adults. I've had two different moms tell me that they had a son with a similar temperament as Nathan, and as they became older (about upper-elementary), these spirited children blossomed into responsible, conscientious young men. That is so encouraging!
Nathan's intensity is often quite challenging to me, as he has strong and often surprising reactions to lots of different situations. As the author says, "Managed well, intensity allows spirited children a depth and delight of emotion rarely experienced by others. But it can also wreak havoc." I also appreciated this quote: "Remind yourself that your child is losing it because he is intense, not because you are a bad parent. Gradually, with maturity and good instruction from you, the frequency and volume of the outbursts will diminish." The author suggests providing activities that soothe and calm, helping the child talk about their frustration, and teaching them to problem solve. I have been trying to apply these suggestions, including saying in a difficult moment to Nathan, "I am listening and I want to understand what you're thinking." It's been met with varied effectiveness, but at least I feel that I have some new techniques to try.
Like his mother, ahem, Nathan struggles with change. The book defines transition as "a change or passage from one place, action, mood, topic, or thing to another." I totally got it when the author said that "Disappointment hits spirited kids hard, because it's actually a transition." The positive is that Nathan and I both have high expectations, but that can obviously lead to being easily disappointed.
I liked this advice for preventing tantrums: 1. Tell your child what he did well, 2. Teach him responsibility, 3. Bring closure to the tantrum (give a hug and move on), and 4. Prepare for next time by sharing expectations and offering alternative responses. Good ideas, though often easier said then done in my case!
I loved the thought of teaching Nathan how to be successful, how to problem solve and make wise choices, rather than "making him" behave or even just surviving. I also needed to be reminded to make an effort to see situations from his point of view.
One of our biggest daily battles, which is shocking and frustrating to me now that Nathan is almost 4, is getting dressed each morning. The book had a specific section addressing that, which made me feel better. I'm not the only one whose child throws a fit every morning when it's time to change clothes--even when it's his idea?! Nathan waffles between wanting to put on his clothes himself (but lacking full coordination to do so, particularly shirts), and not even wanting to try. I liked the suggestion to break tasks into steps that can be successfully accomplished, and also to compromise by saying, "You put on one sock, and I'll do the other." (If any of you have tips in this area, other than let him stay in pajamas all day long, I'm all ears!)
I think this statement is true of most children, and perhaps even many adults. "Spirited kids save their biggest battles for their parents because they're most comfortable with you." We see this on a regular basis. Nathan will be quite pleasant when interacting with someone else, and then "turns on a dime" when I enter the picture. For example, he went with a friend to the zoo a couple of weeks ago, and had a wonderful time. We were anxious to see him and hear about his day, but the very first thing he did upon entering the house was throw himself on the kitchen floor and start whining. Of course, tiredness is a factor in this and perhaps other situations, but it is still tricky to navigate!
In closing, I found this book to be insightful and encouraging, and my heart swelled with the final paragraph: "Spirited kids are like roses--they need more attention than other flowers, having to be pruned and guided in their growth. And sometimes you have to get past the thorns to truly enjoy their beauty."
Of course, all kids (and parents!) are different, and on their own journey of learning. I write this post to share from my own experience, and also to hopefully encourage some of you who may find yourselves caring for a child who is spirited.
I want to mention that this book is written from a secular perspective, so while it offered encouragement and insight, I look most to the Lord who promises that if any of us lack wisdom and we ask Him for it, He will supply it generously. (James 1:5)