Raising 'Spirited Children' Without Breaking Their Spirit

Pouty ToddlerMy Lila Claire is 2 1/2, and she's as sweet as she can be ... until she's not. One second she's caressing my face telling me how much she loves me, then I see a flicker in her eyes, a pursing of her lips, and smack!, she hits me in the face.  She tests boundaries, pushes limits (and anything her way), and fights with everything she has when she has wants something. I've never seen a child so hell-bent on getting her way and undeterred by any bribes, consolations, or threats.

We're working on it, but she's so different from my son (now 7), I'm often left reeling with just what to do with her. I refuse to raise an out-of-control, disobedient child, and have always thought myself a strict parent, but  I also love her fierce sense of independence and know many of her challenging attributes will serve her well in life -- especially as a girl. So how do we marry the two? Is it possible to raise a spirited child without breaking her spirit?


I caught up with Erin M. Floyd, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, to talk through some of these issues. Here's what she said:

Is "spirited" just another word for out-of-control when it comes to toddlers? 

Spirited” is a term becoming more popular in general parenting circles. Definitions of “spirited” vary by book authors and parenting movements, so it can mean a variety of things dependent on the user. Formal research literature does not really utilize the terms “spirited” or “strong-willed” as much as it focuses on “disruptive behavior disorders,” which are formally defined in diagnostic manuals.

Although spirited children can be challenging and frustrating, there are many positive qualities of children with strong wills, including being independent, persistent, assertive, extroverted, confident, and so on. The challenge is to foster the positive characteristics while reining in the disruptive ones.

So how do we do that?

There is a wide variety of behaviors that, when typically occurring in moderation, are generally acceptable to most individuals. However, when a particular behavior starts occurring very frequently and intensely as well as begins impairing an individual’s ability to function, then the behavior is considered disordered and intervention generally is warranted. (It may be more acceptable for a child to work doggedly on a math problem than to repeatedly defy parental instruction.) Thus, there’s nothing wrong with spiritedness until it crosses the line into disrespect.

In dealing with a spirited child, the strategy is to avoid pushing against the wall of stubbornness but instead go around it. Reinforce the positive behavior you want to see, and ignore attention-seeking behavior, using positive opposites to drive home the message. For behaviors that cannot be ignored, such as biting and hitting, traditional discipline strategies are in order. VERY IMPORTANT POINT: There is no “one-size-fits-all” discipline protocol, so a good assessment of individual family needs is imperative at the beginning of any treatment.

What are the biggest mistakes parents make when it comes to toddlers and discipline?

Parents need to establish a balance between nurturance and discipline. Regarding the latter, they need to follow the mantra of consistency, predictability, and follow-through with consequences. For example, sometimes parents want to let an offense slide because they are attempting to avoid being “too harsh.” Instead, being inconsistent in providing consequences is more confusing to kids and makes it more difficult for them to avoid testing boundaries, which in turn infuriates parents. The end result is more negative parent-child interactions.

It feels especially difficult with girls, because we want them to be strong. Do different discipline techniques work better with girls as opposed to boys?

The same techniques generally work for both sexes, as boys and girls have more similarities than differences. As opposed to sex differences, what may be more evident are individual-specific nuances. For example, temperament may influence how a child interprets and responds to parental discipline strategies. Also, there are often different adult expectations of the same behavior expressions in boys and girls.

The main goal of addressing disruptive behaviors is to attend directly to the specific undesirable behaviors.

If a child shows extreme “spirtedness” as a toddler is she likely always to carry that personality trait -- how much of it is just part of being a toddler?

No one is predestined to be a certain way later in life. Several research studies of young children's temperament have demonstrated stability with later personality growth, but temperament does not always foreshadow later personality. However, disruptive behaviors do show a high degree of stability over time from the preschool to early elementary school years, from childhood to adolescence, and from childhood to adulthood.

Additionally, without treatment, early clinically significant disruptive behaviors qualitatively worsen with time. If left untreated, children with significant disruptive behaviors are more likely to engage in delinquent or criminal behavior in adulthood, have increased rates of violence against women, and also have an elevated risk of psychiatric problems including a higher suicide rate.

Do you have a "spirited child"? What techniques have worked well for you?

Image via Julie Ryan Evans

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