Thursday, 11 August 2016

Five Tips on Parenting the Spirited Child

Natalie is a mother of two spirited children, six year old Mark and three year old Sarah. Between Mark's intense meltdowns and Sarah's stubborn personality, Natalie's daily routine feels like a battlefield. Like Natalie, other parents of spirited children struggle just to get through the day. Desperate for solutions, parents of spirited children scour the internet, read countless articles, attend seminars, webinars, and probably have a dozen parenting books on their shelves. Still, there seems to be no solution.

Despite the numerous reminders, taking away privileges, threats, time outs, and even yelling, nothing seems to phase Mark. Natalie starts to question whether Mark is even aware of his actions and whether or not she should discipline him. Parents of spirited children often wonder if discipline tactics used for neurotypical children will work on their children. They wonder if there is a different method of discipline designed for their child's temperament and condition. With the vast and overwhelming amount of information on child rearing and discipline, it is hard to filter out what is applicable to your child.

After reading numerous books on discipline, both for neurotypical children and spirited children, I found striking similarities and the overall same messages. The reality is, we try to use different methods simultaneously and this results in no effective outcome. Natalie sometimes uses time outs, while other times she takes away privileges. The consequences are all over the place. Below you will find the five tips on getting your parenting game refocused.

You're the level-headed boss

You will find in most parenting articles and books, there is an emphasis on laying the foundation and teaching your child that you are the decision maker. This helps the child feel grounded and provides them with a sense of security and structure. Some children will push to find the weak spots, and will often succeed with their relentless efforts to achieve their goals. Being the boss is not akin to being authoritarian. It simply means to calmly but firmly keep your word.

Make the Rules visible and Clear

All children need reminders of what the rules are. Have those rules visible to your child with images to help them visualize. Talk about the rules. Have them repeat them to you. Once the rules are learned, make the consequences clear. If they are old enough, sit together and come up with a list of consequences together. When they are part of the process they are more likely to comply. When the consequences are vague, children tend to try different ways of getting around those rules. Make the consequence fit the crime, and if possible make them natural consequences.


Spirited children often push further and have intense emotions. Because of this, tired but well meaning parents sometimes give in to some demands, while other times we keep firm. These mixed messages confuse our children. This is a common reason why we find it so difficult to discipline. Our children do not know what to expect, so when they are met with a "no", they are more frustrated than they normally would be. Children on the autism spectrum and with ADHD need structure and consistency to get them through their day. Always follow through with consequences in a calm, but firm manner.


Try as best as you can to share the daily routine with your child. A visual schedule for the day and week helps calm an anxious child. Spirited children thrive of predictability. Give fair warning when there will be a change. Sometimes change is met with frustration and anxiety from your spirited child. It helps to create a social story about dealing with change. Our spirited children live in a very unpredictable world, and this gives them quite a lot of anxiety. While we may not realize it, we have to be sensitive to that and help them through it. Creating a predictable space for them helps them cope better and minimizes their frustrations. They can better manage their emotions when they know what to expect.

Verbalize their Feelings

It's important to talk to your child about their emotions to reaffirm to your child that you see their anger. You see their sadness. I find that when my spirited child is angry, if I start off with a defense, "I gave you a fair warning", he responds with more anger. When I respond with, "I see this really makes you angry", his reaction turns into grief rather than anger. He is quicker to calm down, most of the time. When you show your child that you see their emotions, they feel heard.

Finally and most importantly, forgive yourself. Sometimes we will make mistakes. That's okay. It shows our children that mistakes happen even to adults and it's how we handle them is what matters. If you lose your temper, apologize and explain. As parents of spirited children, we are constantly under stress of making sure our children overcome the challenges they face and come out strong and successful. Our determination to help them succeed and thrive is the motivating factor for proper and effective discipline.  There is no parent that enjoys disciplining their child. We often ask ourselves, am I being too harsh? She's crying too much, am I damaging her? Maybe I should have let this one go...but we have to remind ourselves that while disciplining is sometimes painful, it is always for the benefit of our children. 

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