A shiny gold star was on my mind last Sunday morning as I wrestled my huge, pregnant body (including winter-white legs, month-old toenail polish and cold -infested face) into my bathing suit and packaged up my wild little man into the car for our weekly swimming lesson.
I wasn’t sure at the time what that star could be cashed in for, or why I felt that this seemingly common parental act deserved some type of prize. But for parents across the world I am sure the thought has struck your mind: “Wow, I could SO easily skip this chaos and throw on another (and then another) Sesame Street”. In particular, I am talking to those fellow parents out there who have a child who could be classified as “high-spirited”, “energetic”, or “strong-willed”.
I am a NOW a very proud Momma to one of those kiddos; but for awhile, I was simply weary.
When I used these terms around friends and colleagues they often say “Oh yeah, all toddlers/boys are like that.” I disagree wholeheartedly that all toddlers, or all boys, are “like that”. Each child is completely unique and awesome, and having worked with the under 6 population for over 20 years I firmly believe that yes, there are trends in traits but what differs is the parent-child dyad and how that relationship expresses itself on those traits. I have spent my days working and my nights researching and learning all about “high-spirited” kids, and I have come to the same conclusion voiced by many that these kiddos that are simple MORE (and that therefore require MORE from us.) I’ve read research articles and parenting books from a wide variety of theoretical viewpoints; I’ve attended seminars and asked my incredibly brilliant coworkers (I honestly work at the very best place in the world for accessing info on child development). I’ve met with a child psychologist who has discussed at length with me ADHD and childhood anxiety disorders. Pestered Behavioural Consultants to share their strategies for positive behavioural support plans and tips on sensory and emotional regulation
And still, I would leave the park baffled and upset when my child does something impulsively and another child is in tears. I tend to helicopter-parent. I warn people before my little man has even entered the room (self-fulfilling prophecy much?). I have avoided playdates and parties in the past, and can count on one hand the number of times he has been babysat while my husband and I go out for dinner, in 2 years and 9 months (and there were no after-dinner drinks, movies, parties, etc. They were nights filled with anxious texting and me staring at my watch).
I am that parent that despite knowing a TON has a brain that simply can’t put things to practice. I have felt scared that something very serious is going on, have felt embarrassed, ashamed, nervous, and sad. And so very, very tired.Parents of children whom can be labelled as “high-spirited” simply can not relax when their kiddos are awake. If there is something to climb, they’ll climb it. They find the well-hidden paints, Sharpies, medicine, scissors and tools and USE them, on everything. These kiddos escape from daycares like Houdinis and bolt like lightening during walks (like, a LOT). They get over-stimulated and dysregulated beyond what we can sometimes manage or know how to handle and control. They are driven, persistent, and often don’t seem to need sleep or food, just constant social activities and play partners or movement and just more, more more. (Sound a bit familiar? Read “Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent and Energetic” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. AWESOME resource.) Also, check out this great post on “High Needs Toddlers” by The Anti-June Cleaver.
High-spiritedness will bode kiddos very well when they get older. For my son, I KNOW that his intense passion will serve him very well in future relationships and careers. He will be driven, creative, opinionated and a true social butterfly. He is pretty much the most affectionate and empathetic person I know. But how do I get through the impulsivity that brings us all to tears and drives me to consult with every health care professional friend I know? How can I stop all the bargaining and threatening and bribing and useless time-outs? How can I catch up to him when he is always sprinting in so many, many ways?
And…..how can I stop from hating that parent who removes their child from my son’s vicinity? Who gives their friends the “raised eyebrows” when my child does something they think is wild. The servers who rush away at restaurants after putting us in the corner. I know it takes time and he simply needs to get older so we can appeal to his “higher brain” versus that emotional/impulsive lower brain, and that there simply are people out there who don’t understand child development nor are very kind in general. But what to do in the meantime, especially since pretty soon with Little Man #2 on the way, I won’t be able to keep my eyes and hands and brain and heart on him 24/7?
Well, I think I have come to a new path in this parenting adventure. Its taken me 7 days to write this blog post, and in those 7 days I allowed myself the time to compile the things that have helped us out, in hopes that this post may help parents of high-spirited kiddos in any way. Here is what I came up with:
Give Everyone A Break
You, your partner, the shoulders and ears of your family and friends and coworkers. And most importantly, give your kiddo a break too. Without that fully-formed frontal lobe, we really can’t expect them to have such brilliant executive functioning now can we?
Don’t be an Askhole
We all worry about our kiddos at some point or another. But I tend to be an “askhole” when it comes to my kiddos, asking everyone questions but then not putting their advice fully into practice before asking questions again.
When in Doubt, Check it Out
Importantly, though, if you are truly concerned about your child, talk to your doctor, local child development centre, etc. “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.”
Honour your Feelings
The whole “It’s a stage”, “he’s a toddler/boy”, line of comments do have some validity to them. But you are still allowed to feel the way you feel. And to address today’s challenges in a way that makes your heart and head (and child!) happier. I take my parenting seriously; and simply can’t just be laid-back about it. And that’s OKAY.
How I feel governs how I see the world. And how I end up parenting. If I am tired, stressed, sick, whatever, I simply don’t have the necessary resources to be consistent, reliable and predictable as a parent. My inability to be consistent is confusing and completely not what he needs. He’s like a little mathematician; deriving information from patterns. I need to fuel myself so that I can keep up with my forever-fuelled up child and be consistent (and loving!) so that he can learn. Repetition is key!
Small snacks, water, fresh air, movement, good sleep, body breaks, and structured activities. He needs redirection and support; not punishment. He needs it ALL to function and be able to cope.
“Choose Your Battles, But Win.”
Heard this quote this week at a parenting seminar, and this totally rings true for me. I try to do it all, then inevitably feel like I fail. So, I’ll pick only a few things to focus on, but feel successful afterwards (i.e. targeting bedtime routine by being as consistent and scheduled as possible, with NO distractions, and a clear plan of attack. And no bending.)
Choose Time-Ins over Time-Outs
Sign up for weekly programs versus think you’ll do drop-ins. Keeping up a regular schedule is actually great for both of us (but also pull out the “extra cup of coffee and Fireman Sam netflix marathon card” when it’s just too much to get yourself out the door.) I simply can’t do drop-ins…because in the heat of the moment I won’t go.
When things are getting hairy, go for a walk (where they are actually doing the walking). Preferably to a fenced in park where you can sit and breathe and they can sprint around and scream. Releasing is good for all of us.
Call for Back-Up
As we have NO family around to help us, my hubby and I are on full-time duty (and both work beyond full-time). Since doing household chores are often impossible when high-spirited kids are awake, divide and conquer. For bigger tasks (like a Gymnastics class or indoor climbing playground) tag-team it. And Grocery shop ONLY with a cart, with a seatbelt, and never forget that (until you have a child who is able to control their body).
Watch the Climb.
I lucked out as my son is cared for by an incredibly amazing early Child Educator who gives him what he needs: structure, lots of movement and play, freedom to roam and explore, consistent rules, and lots of love. My son craves attention and physical interaction (hugs, squeezes, etc.). A more “formal” preschool with many kiddos just wouldn’t be the best fit for him right now (he is more, so he needs more, and with a lot of kids around he simply can’t get it). She shared with me a strategy that she tried that worked and it has honestly made a HUGE difference: I call it Watch The Climb. For those of you like me who have trained for marathons, this will remind you of “10 & 1 training” (run 10, walk 1). Instead of running a marathon straight through, pace yourself. When my child is getting around 2/3 of the way up the mountain, I pull him out of his play and we have a few quiet moments to snuggle, read, take big breaths, get some water, etc. He becomes more regulated and ready to join back in. When things get over-stimulating all of a sudden, I give him some body breaks or we get cozy and snuggle. I don’t label it as “You’re freaking out so come sit down”; instead it’s time for snack, or water, or to “Belly Breathe”. He then is less likely to get the top of the mountain then crash all the way down. Which leads me too….
Don’t Overstay Your Stay
For those who know my little family, we are HUGE social butterflies (I’ married to a Maritimer). But I’ve realized that all afternoon playdates simply are too much. Keep it short and sweet and try to end it on a high, positive note; versus a “okay you did this act, so now we are leaving” note.
Don’t Become a Hermit
Your child needs lots of practice, and so do you. Choose short activities with small groups, and connect with parents who understand where you are at.
Most importantly, in my opinion, understand and know in your heart that they are not giving you are hard time; they are having a hard time. So let’s give them what they need and celebrate these curious, zestful, tenacious, charismatic, perceptive and energetic little souls, who definitely will keep us on our freshly-painted-lilac toes!