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Parenting A Spirited Child

Methods to coach your spirited child through their worst tantrums and into learning the tools to self-advocate

Expert: Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Positive Parenting Conference by: A Fine Parent

I have a spirited child. My son is a normal child, a neuro-typical child, but he’s MORE. He’s more intense, he's more reactive, he’s more persistent, he’s more perceptive, and more energetic than the usual child. I can usually not do anything without him letting me know he is not happy about it.


I would often wonder how on earth I made a child whose spirit was so different to mine and my partner's. I was a reserved, quiet and calm child growing up, and my partner was spontaneously adventurous and out-going.

If I had only half the experience I did in working with kids, I would feel very alone in this journey, not knowing quite how to handle my spirited child. I would feel like I was a terrible parent not knowing how to handle situations I found myself in with him. What have I done that could have wired him this way? What should I not have done? These are questions I found myself occasionally asking, before remembering something very important...


He would erupt as a baby, he had severe colic. Right off the bat, his experiences of this world as a result of his colic would be that of pain, discomfort, stress, and his body would go into protection mode. My response as a parent was key. Even as babies, children know when you are providing a safe environment. It was extremely difficult, and admittedly I didn't handle every situation as well as I could have. When your child goes into fight or flight and you provide a safe and secure environment, you help them come down from their eruptive behaviour with your response, and you change the wiring in their brains. It really is incredible how powerful the mind and body are, but what is more incredible is how much of an influence we as parents have over our children's experiences in the way we handle and react to situations.

Later in life, children recognize their own emotions and behaviour because they’ve learnt from you and are able to self regulate, they are able to name what they are experiencing. At 15 months old, my son could tell me when something gave him a fright or recognized when others where sad, purely from me pointing it out, recognizing these emotions in other people and himself, and helping him through his emotions. If taught early, children can learn to self-regulate from a very early age, which can make the world of difference in the way they experience the world around them.


I often have people say to me: “Good luck!” “You have your hands full”. I do, yes, but I would not have it any other way. I do not label my child if it is not positive. I redesign anything that implies that who my son is, is anything but great. I embrace who he is, and I truly believe he will be something great one day. He IS something great already. I can see how confident he is, how he takes risks, how fearless he is, how his bravery shines through. I see the good qualities he possesses, and do not label them as "bad traits".

An example I often use to show parents how situations can be handled differently by different parents is this: My son runs away from my partner and I continuously. Sometimes it's a thrilling game he likes to play, other times he is just curious about his surroundings and finds it exhilarating to explore them - very energetically! Opposed to getting frustrated with him constantly running away from me, I embrace that he’s an explorer. I enjoy him, and find comfort in the fact that he may well be an Olympic runner one day by me allowing him this freedom to explore exactly who he is and his love of running. I encourage him to develop these traits and strengths, nurture his skills positively and see them through a positive lens. 

Below are the key take-aways from the Masterclass of Parenting a Spirited Child:


See your child through a positive lens. Instead of labelling your child with negative labels, describe them in a positive light. Below are some examples:

  • A "Stubborn" child can be positively described as tenacious, committed, persistent, a number one predictor of future success.

  • A "Whiny / argumentative" child can be positively described as perceptive, sensitive to other people's needs, a leader, stands up for themselves and others and their beliefs.

  • A "Loud" child can be positively described as expressive, and theatrical.

  • A "Hyper" child can be positively described as energetic, athletic, well-co-ordinated, has stamina to make things happen.

  • A "Messy" child can be positively described as creative.


When a child says no, which may be perceived as uncooperative, they are in fact being thoughtful. It means they learn best by observing first, and is great for when an older teenager needs to say no to outside negative influences.


Being spirited is not an excuse for bad behaviour. If others mention a negative label of your child, respond with: 'Yes, I do find him to be (positive label)."



Surround your child with positive people and environments. 


Celebrate your spirited child by being a problem solving family. Communicate by letting each other know what you need and what your goals are because that is what's important to you both. Understand each other and why you react the way you do, and appreciate your differences and similarities.


Teach your children the following 3 cues:

Red zone, yellow zone, green zone:

"Hey guys, you were having fun, now you’re not. What can we do about it? Do we all need to step away and take a break?"

Use their words and realize that when they get worked up that they can step back, walk away and gain their cool. In this way they remain at a level that they can problem solve. Be descriptive in how you communicate:

"I heard your voice get louder."

"I see you’re using your words to tell me how you feel."

"I see you are starting to get worked up."

"I see your hands are clenched."


Teach them what can make them feel better.

Allow them to have an “office space”: a table with play dough / reading / play outside - any method that may be calming for that child. Then you MUST go back for the teachable moment.

Teach them what certain cues are telling them, and that they can use cues to remain calm: Open hands, breathing slower, etc.


Use the phrase “I will help you.” Connect and draw your children to you.

Use the phrase "I am listening" to seek understanding. It begins to calm the child. 


Do a Quiz. Both child and parent can complete a temperament quiz. Find one here.

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