Raising your Spirited Child

Naughty or nice?

Having a strong-willed child is a gift! You may have one of the world’s great leaders in your hands, or certainly one who has the potential to do great things in the years ahead. Parent wisely, don’t break their spirits in the process of raising them. Even ‘text book’ children have their moments and we know that our little darlings arrive without a how-to manual.

So, is my child naughty or just strong willed? The latter is probably true. However, your spirited child may show signs of being ‘naughty’ or misbehaving and we are quick to jump to conclusions and label our children as non-compliant or badly behaved. Strong willed children will often continue to test the boundaries, they may require high levels of attention but that is quite possibly due to the fact that they are high functioning and need a lot of input (parental attention) in order to reach their full potential. Without it, they battle against the barriers that they see in front of them. They battle until they get the attention they need, good or bad, some attention is better than none.

Spirited children like to be in charge. They want to direct their own lives and this often comes across as bossy or defiant. This isn’t their intention. Try to see these as leadership skills and parent your child in a way that they are able to be ‘in charge’ but within the limits of behaviour that is appropriate for their age, safety and scenario. Spirited children love to be at the centre of everything, they are eager to learn, they absorb a lot of information and want share what they’ve learned by demonstrating or talking about their knowledge.

Often, strong-willed or spirited children have a hard time shutting down or switching off. This means that they can seem to be hurtling towards bedtime at a rate of speed with little signs of slowing down as the night closes in. This can be challenging and difficult for parents to manage. Depending on how a spirited child is raised, they can flourish or become difficult to parent. With that in mind, it is important to understand how your child thinks and what motivates them.

It can be useful to look at yourself not as a parent, but as an individual when deciding how to parent your strong-willed child. What type of child were you, what sort of adult are you? Talk to your other half and discuss the traits that your child has in common with both or you.

In doing so, you can take a different look at your child. This can give you some perspective on things and will help you to come up with some ideas on how to help your child to flourish within the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

Power struggles can often ensue when a strong-willed child is engaged in a battle of wills with a parent who has the same personality. This can lead to fiery relationships and little understanding of each other. Try to remember that power struggles or battles take to two. If you don’t show up for the battle, then there is very little left for the other to engage in. Take a deep breath and look at the situation from your child’s perspective. What is it that they’re battling against? What do you need them to do and how can you turn this around so that your child feels in control of their decision and that they are getting what they want while still pleasing you and giving you what is required at that moment.

This is easier said than done. It is much easier to lose your cool, rant and rave and exert your authority, size and temper on your child than do the hard work of parenting your child in a way that takes effort but gets results that are best for all concerned. If you saw yourself engaging in a battle with your toddler, would you feel mature or like a toddler yourself? It is difficult but with some forward planning, we will take a look below at a few ways in which you can avert a fall out and get what you want while your child happily abides.

There are some key components to successful parenting when it comes to strong willed or spirited children. You will need to be able to empathise with your child. See things from his perspective. You should be able to provide your child with choices so that she realises that she has an element of control. She may not like the choices on offer but she will soon learn that the alternative means that that choice is removed from her power and with consistency, she’ll soon learn to make her own choice so that she gets a part in the decision making process.

You need to teach your child respect but they will not learn it if you’re demonstrating the complete opposite. Remember that while you are the parent and that is a position that commands respect in itself, your child will not know the real value of respecting you if you don’t teach them how to treat people. They will learn this by seeing how you treat them, how you make them feel and how you treat others in front of them.

Try to pre-empt a power struggle before it arises. Plan your day as far in advance as possible and give your child ample warning about what is to come. Talk to your child about what you need from them and give them the appropriate choices ahead of time so that they know what is expected of them and what their choices will be at the time. Try to think of solutions that allow your child to feel included in the process while ensuring that you get the result you need at the same time.

By giving your child choice, you are not only empowering them and helping their self-esteem but you’re also equipping them with life-long skills such as negotiating and learning how to compromise when necessary. This will help your child to look at a situation as a problem that needs to be solved and there is more than one way of getting a result. It does not mean that there needs to be a fight in order for one to win while the other gives in.

Spirited children have deep emotions that are rooted in their own sense of personal integrity. A battle of wills for you or I may be simple but for a spirited child, it feels far more personal. It feels as though they are having to give up on themselves and ‘lose’ while someone else wins. This can seem like defeat which is difficult for these competitive, strong-willed children to deal with. Given the opportunity to take part in the decision making, allows them to feel that they are making the ultimate decision when in reality, the parent is the one offering the choices. This is win-win for both parent and child.

Depending on how you were raised at a child, you may find it difficult initially to change your way of thinking. Perhaps there was a strong sense of discipline in your household when you were a child. How did that make you feel at the time and what impact has that had on your own parenting? Do you feel that there could have been a better way of dealing with things when you were a child? Use these reflections to guide your decision making when you consider the best way to parent your child.

Your child is far more likely to co-operate when there is a positive environment for their upbringing rather than one overshadowed by fear or the feeling that they constantly need to be battling for their place in the family.

It is not a battle, it may be a challenge at times but there is always a way forward that gets the job done without a massive blow up taking place. As parents, all we want is to be able to raise our children to be happy, healthy and responsible.

Deep down, we may feel that we are failing and that we will be judged by others on the basis of how our children behave. This is of course true to a point but would it be better to parent and get results through a positive act rather than feeling your child complied with your requirements out of fear or under force?

This does not mean that discipline doesn’t play a part. It certainly does. It is important to set limits and to tell your child that you have put boundaries in place so that they are kept safe and made to feel loved and cared for. It is a far greater sign of successful parenting when a child does as they’re asked because they want to rather than doing so because they feel that obedience is the only option.

You want to build a healthy, loving relationship with your child. You want them to feel safe, able to talk to you and able to look to you for protection because they trust that you can provide that. Equip your child with skills that allow her to be able to judge these qualities in others rather than having a distorted view of relationships that mean one must be in charge and the other must do as they’re told or else.

While this can all come across as quite draconian, it is a real concern when you have a child who has a very strong will of their own. The lines blur very quickly so coming up with a plan of action that supports your child’s personality while ensuring they are doing their part as required, is important.

There is no getting away from it though, a strong-willed child can be a challenge to parent and at times, frustrating to endure. That said, you love your child more than anything and hopefully some of the tips outlined below will help to steer you towards a path that encourages your skills as a parent and allows your strong willed child to spread their wings.

Start today, there is no time like the present. The more you reinforce your new approach to dealing with possible melt-downs, the sooner your child will start to recognise the changes and appreciate the new choices on offer.

Top five tips to help avoid battles and establish healthy boundaries

1. Plan ahead and talk to your child - By having a clear plan that your child can become familiar with, will allow you a good rationale when required. An example may be: It is 7.30am, we will need to be in the car at 7.45. We have 15 minutes to brush teeth, put your shoes on and get your book bags ready. Would you like to press the button on the remote for the car today to unlock the doors? Yes, well of course you can as long as we are on time. Do you want to brush your teeth first or put your shoes on, you choose.

2. It can be good to know that spirited children usually learn through experience - They won’t just take your word for it! This can be challenging too as they will need to push boundaries and may need to learn the hard lesson for themselves before they are ready to accept the fact.

3. Give choice not punishment - By shouting the odds at your child, you are simply teaching them that in order to get what you want in life you have to shout and battle. You want your child to realise that there are better ways of getting what you want. Choice is a great tool for teaching rationale behaviour when you need to find compromise. By offering your child choice, you will empower him to make decisions and to think about the choice before he makes it. He will be genuinely invested in what is going on if he has a part to play and feels in control as he does so.

4. Grow a leader - your child wants to show you that they are capable. They want to please you and they crave your positive praise and attention. Facilitate this by letting your child take charge of as many things as she is capable of doing at her age. For example, turn a battle of wills into a challenge that your child can achieve. If your child does not want to go up for bath time, warn him early on that bath time is coming and perhaps when five minutes is up, he would like to help you turn the taps on and add the bubble bath to the water. This allows him some control of the task while you get him to do whatever it is that you need done.

5. Teach your child respect - for herself and for others. You can do so by listening to your child, actively and teaching your child to do the same. By offering your child your respect, they feel valued and they know that you care for them deeply. This in turn will encourage their respect for themselves and others.

These are just some of the ways you can help your child to exhibit the behaviour you need while not compromising who they are at the same time. It is not about you being right or in charge, it is about finding a harmonious way for you to parent and for your child to respond in a way that works for everyone. If your child knows what your expectations are and that you’re proud of them and full of praise when they do as they’re asked then they will be all the more keen to continue on that path. If they feel as though they are constantly being chastised or overpowered, forced to do as they’re told regardless of their feelings, you will have a battle on your hands for the foreseeable future.

When your child feels listened to and respected, they will mimic the same. Your child will look to you as a trusted caregiver when they need you rather than being unsure of how you will react. If you approach situations calmly, your child will begin to do the same. If you feel your child is opposing you, try to understand why. Ask your child why he feels he doesn’t want to do something, show him you’re really listening and discuss what choices there are to resolve how he sees things.

Your child’s reason for feeling a certain way are very real to her. While we have the benefit of a life-time of experience to draw on or rational views on things, your child is still learning. They are looking to you for justification and understanding. If they don’t feel listened to, supported and understood, who will make them feel this way so that they can go confidently with these skills into their adult lives?

Support your child in their right to make choices. You can explain to your child that they have the choice and the power is in their hands. If your child does not want to wear a hat and gloves out into the icy weather then explain why you are going to wear yours and that they have the choice not to put their own on. You can offer to put them in the bag so that once they realise that it is cold, they can put them on and keep warm. This will allow your child to learn from experience. The choice was offered, put them on or take them along to put on later. If they get cold, they have learnt a lesson and next time, may decide to put them on before leaving.

Children learn best through experience, regardless of whether they are spirited or not. Your child will look to you for guidance so demonstrate through your own behaviour and responses so that they have a reference for their own behaviour.

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