Tuesday, 22 April 2008

My Spirited Children

This is a bit of a personal glimpse into my house on a daily basis, for those of you who only see us when we're out and about. I share this struggle of mine, because I h ave found a bit of light shining through, and I hope that if there is someone else out there in the same position, you might realize you are not alone in this.

Strong-willed. Determined. Stubborn. These are a few adjectives that describe my oldest son, Colin, aged 2 1/2 years. Characteristics to be cherished, for sure, but they are also very demanding of my time and attention. Actually, they are all-consuming of my time and attention. And as I struggled daily with trying to cope with Colin, I constantly wondered "what am I doing wrong?" Colin's behaviour often seems reflective of a spoiled child.

For instance, he decides he wants a cookie, but he's already had his limit, and dinner is only half an hour away. I calmly explain this to him, and he explodes into an all-out tantrum. He screams, throws things, hits things, rattles the cupboard drawer until I'm sure the whole thing will come down on him. Tears are pouring down his cheeks as he repeats over and over "I want a cookie!" And it continues for the next half hour. Someone looking in might wonder if I generally give in to him, spoiling him too often, and thus his reaction would be predictable. But we don't give in to him. Never before has he gotten that cookie, and so nothing in the past would dictate that if he cries long enough he'll get what he wants.

Here's another example: Coming home from a walk, I open the front door and let us in. Colin, previously on-top-of-the-world happy from our outing, throws himself to the ground in tears. He wanted to open the door. I drag him in and try to get his shoes and coat off, but it's useless. I can try to talk to him, calm him, explain to him, distract him, but nothing will work. In the end, I take him back outside, close the door, and let him open it. The tears shut off immediately and he smiles a huge smile up at me and bounces off to play with his toys.

He might refuse to eat for three hours because I cut his sandwich in half and he wanted it whole. On the other hand, when happy, he and I can sit and sing through our repertoire of songs for the better part of an hour.

It all seems so extreme, and is utterly exhausting. And I wonder and wonder what I'm doing wrong. Surely there is some parenting technique I've neglected to pick up over the years, some secret to everyone else's well-behaved children. I've no illusion that every child is perfect, but Colin's extreme behaviour seems, well, extreme!

I always called him my "little 100% baby". Every emotion he experiences and displays is at 100%. When he's happy, he's over the moon. When he's sad, tears flow in an unending stream. When he's angry, watch out. I had long concluded that he was just going to be my little challenge in life and I'd better fast find a coping mechanism so I don't lose my own sanity.

And then I found it. That elusive book, that missing piece of the puzzle, the answer I have long been searching for. It is called "The Spirited Child". And it could be my autobiography. As I read the opening pages, the descriptions from parents of their "spirited children" brought tears of relief to my eyes. Everything from explosive tantrums, to a photographic memory to his inability to "not sweat the small stuff" to his remarkable ability to notice every detail, to the resistance to change, to his ability to push every one of my buttons at exactly the same time. I am not alone. I am not missing the good parenting gene. Colin's temperament is not as unique as I once thought. I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

After lengthy studies, the author found that a group of people (she figures about 10% of the population) are what she terms "spirited". My own 100% analysis is not far off. Spirited children have heightened sensory, making them much more easily susceptible to everything around them. So when a minute amount of watermelon juice trickled down his sleeve yesterday, it actually drove him crazy. The feeling was heightened to the point that he could feel or think of nothing else. So as he struggled to tear off his top, he wouldn't even hear my suggestion to "please wait and I'll take you upstairs after to get a new top." It had to come off and it had to be now. The author says telling him to "just ignore it" is comparable to asking you to just "hold it" indefinitely when your bladder is about to burst. You just can't think of anything else. Every emotion and sense of a spirited child is "ready to burst" practically all the time.

I was elated to finally get this book and start mining its parenting techniques for working with spirited children. (Like "let them cry it out" is useless. They will cry indefinitely.) What is wonderful to know (and very evident in Colin) is that spirited children are often very bright. They just need to be taught how to manage their extreme personalities and harness all that energy and determination for good. And I need to get used to the phrase "Colin do it!" The book also reaffirms that most parenting techniques will not work for these kids. What a relief to know that it truly wasn't anything I was doing. I was using all the advice I read and was given by friends and family correctly...it just isn't effective on kids like Colin.

One last addendum. For those of you familiar with Dr. Sears and his family, their last child (they have about seven or eight, I think!) was of this temperament. They also wrote a book about it, recording that "they had no idea a child could be this "difficult" to handle." One of eight, which is nearly that 1 in 10 that the author of "The spirited child" guessed is the percentage out there. I had a visit from a public health nurse the other day to try and get help dealing with Caleb's unending crying. After the hour long interview, she turned to me and asked "Have you ever heard of the book 'The Spirited Child'?" I nearly cried, from relief, realization, and utter exhaustion. What she said made so much sense. Caleb, too, goes from pure happiness to utter misery in the blink of an eye. When he dirties his diaper, he screams until it is changed. I can set a watch by his naptime, because exactly at 9am, 1pm and 5pm he explodes into tears and screaming that renders him hoarse, all which immediately ceases when I put him down for a nap. The Sears' family had 1/8 children that were spirited. My luck is 2/2!

It will certainly be a challenge for me, because often a spirited child demands 100% of your attention. Usually, your other more mild-mannered children would be content to amuse themselves while you help your child through whatever the issue is. For me, I often have to leave one child in a fit of screams and tears while attempting to appease the other. I just hope and pray that this book will provide me with some better techniques so that I can find balance and, maybe, just maybe, a little peace in my life!

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