Relearning How to Parent the “Spirited” child

The secret? Only you know your child

by Lindsay Soberano-Wilson
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As a first time mom I thought that parenting a baby was hard –sleep deprived, sore nipples, hungry (because every time I sat down to eat the baby would start to cry!). And then that baby boy turned 1, and then 2, and then 3, and then 4, and then 5!

I’m not sure what I thought it would be like to mother an active, inquisitive, social 5 year old boy, but every day I wonder if I’m cut out for this. My son is a Gemini baby: one minute he is a cooperative angel and the next minute he is the terminator, saying “no” to this and “no” to that among other words and phrases that are not to be repeated. I find myself asking, “Where did my sweet baby boy go?”

One day I think I got the hang of this mamma gig, and I’m proud of my positive parenting skills, and the next day I’ve fallen back into bad habits such as yelling , reacting emotionally to negative behaviour, or giving into temper tantrums. Now that I also have a one year old boy, I laugh at how I ever thought being a mom to a baby was hard–it’s pure bliss.

In our home the stress over how to deal with our “spirited” child prompted us to seek help from the experts. As a result, we are currently practicing the use of the following techniques: choosing our battles, using consequences that “fit the crime”, embracing and identifying his emotions, and being more cognizant of positive reinforcement, while continuing to use distraction and warnings. Oh, and did I mention striving to do all this as a team!

Of course none of this matters if other people, such as well intentioned friends or relatives, try to discipline your child or disregard the rules. Why is it that everyone feels the need to correct my parenting when it comes to my spirited child, but no one says boo when it comes to my mild-mannered one year old. Surely if I have to take criticism, I should also be applauded. Truth be told my children’s behaviour has a lot less to do with me than it does with their respective personalities.

It is very important to have boundaries around the liberties outsiders think they can take with your parenting. I personally do not find it helpful when other people try to correct my child’s behaviour. All this does is make me have to compete for my child’s attention. For instance, the entire table does not need to correct my child’s behaviour at a restaurant. It simply brings unwanted attention to the issue and is none of anyone else’s business. The worst is when a friend makes comments to your child about their behaviour –again, all this does is grant your child attention for all the wrong reasons.

Restaurants are hard. But truth be told I have found that the best technique is the use of distraction. For instance, if the child is standing on a chair then engage him or her in an activity. If more restaurants had more interactive gimmicks, it would be a much more enjoyable experience. My husband and I recently took my son to Boston Pizza for the first time where he was as good as gold. Why? They gave him an activity book with cool 3D glasses and crayons, and they had very kid friendly meals.

Of course there are times when kids just misbehave, and in this case and it’s best to have consequences that relate to the misbehaviour; therefore, making logical sense to the child and ensuring that discipline is in reaction to the misbehaviour and in no way a devaluation of the child. For instance, if my son plays with outside toys in the house, he loses outdoor play; or if he interrupts me on the phone he loses the privilege to use my iPhone before bed to watch his favourite Pokemon YouTube videos..

On the other hand, there are some behaviours, such as spitting, hitting or name calling that we currently struggle to correct. In these cases I find myself taking away favourite toys or threatening to cancel play dates. That’s the thing: I haven’t escalated the consequences to taking away something as major as a play date or attending a birthday party. Usually the mere thought of that gets him to cooperate. But how much of this then becomes an empty threat? That is something my husband and I are going to have to start taking much more seriously.

To begin attempting to avoid the same contentious issues we decided to hold a family meeting to make a list of house rules: I must use gentle hands and kind words; I can only eat a treat after dinner; and I will wait patiently, while my mom or dad is on the phone. Notice how all the rules are positive instead of saying something negative like I won’t interrupt my parents on the phone. This is something that Sarah Chana Radcliffe discusses at length in her book “Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice”.

In my house many fights occur over treats –when and how often they should be eaten. Before they were within his reach but now they are not. He must ask. Furthermore, we have let him know that if he doesn’t show improvement around when he gets treats that we will simply not buy treats for the house any more. It’s looking as though we may have to move to this — at least for a while.

The treats are not just about healthy living or following the rules. We all know how the spirited child can act when on sugar. It’s really just out of control. I notice a major shift in my son’s behaviour after he’s had chocolate–he becomes a lot more impulsive and irrational. The other thing to watch for is when your child is overtired or hungry–also known as “hangry.” This is a bad combination for the spirited child and is par for the course when arriving home from school. I have found that this problem is best avoided when my son attends an after school activity and comes home to dinner on the table. I always find these nights go a lot smoother. I know I’m not alone in this observation. Moms have told me.

However, that just isn’t a realistic daily routine and lately, the window between being home after school until dinner has been tumultuous, including disagreements over treats and where to play. For example, I want to go for a walk so my one year old can enjoy some fresh air, and he wants to kick around a soccer ball on the front driveway by the road where we have a huge yard. He wants another cookie and I want him to wait until after dinner. The list goes on and on. But choosing your battles and knowing when to correct is also important. Sometimes I choose to turn a blind eye and instead begin talking to him about something positive he did that day.

This comes from what Radcliffe coins the 80-20 rule. This rule stipulates that 80% of what we say and do for our children in our day to day interactions must be a positive experience, and that only 20% can be reserved for correcting behaviour and giving instructions. She compares this to your relationship with your spouse, asking if you would want to spend time with someone who is always giving you orders. Taking a page from Radcliffe, I also believe that there is a time and a place for positive discipline. This is something my husband and I have butted heads over lately.

We were having one of those horrible mornings when getting our son out the door was next to impossible. This resulted in us each taking turns barking orders at him, which in turn overwhelmed him, and he lashed out and hit my husband who wanted to discipline him then and there. But he was going to be late for his bus, so I said we would deal with it later. While my husband thought this communicated weakness, I felt that it was okay to tell our son that we were not happy, but that he had to go and we would discuss his consequence and talk to him about it later.

Another thing we are learning in our parenting journey is how important it is to give our kids positive attention. How many times has your kid asked you to look at something and you’re busy making dinner etc. The other day I asked him to sweep a little, and even though I said thank you while he did it, once he was done he was looking for more credit and was telling me he was all done. In the past I may have just said “okay”, but instead I stopped what I was doing and told him what a good job he did. If your kid only gets attention when you correct behaviour then he will repeat that behaviour.

I’m sorry to say that in our house tantrums have won our son a lot of attention; they started around 2 years old and peaked at 3. Now at least we can help him calm down in a relatively short amount of time. He’s never been good at self soothing. Even as a baby he needed to be held and rocked for naps. He needed comfort to feel safe, whereas my one year old self soothes like a champ. He just doesn’t have the same knack at self regulation as some other kids do.

Over the years we have used techniques like deep breathing and putting his hand on his heart to bring him back to the moment. Lately, improving our communication by simply identifying his emotions has worked for us. When dealing with a tantrum or any strong emotion, it’s best to simply accept and feel the emotion by experiencing it until it leaves instead of trying to correct or fix it. I have found that stating how my child is feeling and giving him a hug have made all the difference. And most of the time I’m successful, but sometimes when he’s crying and yelling, I freeze. It’s learning how not to be overwhelmed in the moment that helps. It’s only that one second, that one thing that can be said that snaps him out of it.

Recently, he was raging about wanting to play outside with the neighbours even though I said no. My husband finally calmed him down by giving an appropriate consequence about not being able to play with his friend on the weekend. He stood frozen in his tracks, took a deep breath and said “okay.” That’s the thing, it’s the littlest thing that can set them off or bring them around. But it’s getting to know your child that can aid in you anticipating this behaviour and how to correct. And no one knows your child like you and your partner do; therefore reinforcing what I said before about why it is so crucial for outsiders not to intervene. They don’t know where you are in your parenting journey; they don’t know which rule you are fine tuning. They don’t know what sets off your child, or what soothes your child. They just don’t know.

Radcliffe’s book taught me that having the tools to deal with undesirable behaviour as best you can gives parents a chance at success. It gives us a chance at erasing bad habits such as yelling or punishing — the way many of us grew up. This is at no fault of our parents generation. It’s not about blame. It’s about change — relearning the parenting game. It’s hard to change; it’s hard to parent consciously; it’s work, like marriage, but the rewards are endless. Teaching how to process emotions is a lifelong gift that I’m struggling to learn about and give to my children so that they can experience healthy relationships with their partners and children in the future.

Follow me on my parenting journey here as I update which tools and techniques are working for our family and what can perhaps work for yours!

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