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Helping Your Spirited Child’s Sensitivity Become a Strength

A 4-step method to transform problem-focused anger into a problem-solving habit.

Source: Phuket@photographer/Flickr

A baby comes into the world not as a little blank slate waiting to be written on, but with a big part of their personality already in place. Temperament is hard-wired, a genetic, biological, neurochemical reality. Along with cultural influences and life experiences, your child’s temperament is a building block of what will become their unique personality.

Temperament affects how intensely your child experiences emotions, how your child reacts to new people and experiences, and how easy they find it to regulate their emotions. You have no power over their sensitivity or the intensity of their experience, but you have a lot of power over the self-acceptance they need if they’re going to feel okay about these aspects of who they are and over the strategies they learn to manage those intense reactions and feelings.

1. Affirm their sensitivity as a strength. Spirited kids are unusually sensitive to smells, textures, tastes, sights, and sounds. They feel their social and physical environments more deeply than others, and when things are not harmonious or pleasing, they experience that as a real and serious problem. When your child is troubled and misbehaving, look for the offended sensitivity that might underlie that. If you can’t see it, ask the child if something is bothering them. If they can’t or won’t tell you, go through the senses — “Is it a smell you’ve noticed?” Sometimes it is something else entirely — the child is tired or hungry, for example — but when the problem is a result of their unusual sensitivity, let them know you admire that. “It’s great to have such a good sense of smell. From now on, I’ll ask you if I think something’s going bad in the fridge.”

2. Acknowledge their problem. A spirited child feels disharmonies and injustices deeply and intensely. They can slide into gloomy preoccupations that move quickly into tantrums and rages. You can slow or prevent that by letting them know you see the problem and care about it.

3. Avoid your natural inclination toward irritation, impatience, and autocratic instructions. Your spirited child does not save their problems for convenient times. That means you will often be dealing with problems at inconvenient times. Handling a problem right, at the time when it happens, is an investment dearly worth making, even if it delays your plans. And of course, you have no doubt already learned that if you do get irritable, impatient, or autocratic, that will make things worse, not better, and it will take even longer to calm things down.

4. Encourage an attitude of collaborative problem-solving. Spirited kids need more help than others learning how to transition from problem-finding into problem-solving. Recognize their sensitivity as a strength, and acknowledge the reality of the problems they find. Then ask them what you can do to solve the problem together. For example,

Child: “I don’t like beans! I won’t eat them!”

You: “That IS a problem. I am sorry to hear that. But I’m your mom, and I want you to grow up strong and healthy, and that means eating some vegetables. How should we solve this?”

In the beginning of this process of moving toward co-operative problem-solving, you’ll probably need to provide some options and possibilities. Here are a few:

“We also have carrots, peas, and broccoli. Would you rather have a different vegetable?”

Or, “I’ve put six beans on your plate. Is that too many? How many do you want to eat?”

Or, “Should I make you a smoothie, and blend in some beans or spinach?”

Or, “Would it help you manage the beans if I tell you what’s for dessert? We can make a deal for bonus dessert if you eat extra beans.”

NOTE: In some families, the food wars have been going on too long and the child has become too entrenched in not liking certain foods that this is not the right place to start with problem-solving attitude training. If that is the case for you, try these ideas first in areas that are less loaded for your family. Use them with food only after you and your child have a taste of the freedom that comes from the collaborative problem-solving attitude.

No matter what kind of temperament you might have preferred, you’ve got no choice in this matter, and you get what you get. You can’t change your child’s temperament, but you CAN work with it, and help shape it. By providing the environmental supports and encouragements your child needs in response to their temperament, you can help them find the coping mechanisms and self-acceptance they need to thrive and succeed, to make a happy productive life. This is true whether you have a highly sensitive orchid, a spirited child with a difficult temperament, or a more adaptable dandelion, with an easy temperament.


Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

How to Understand Your Child’s Temperament,” by American Academy of Pediatrics

How to Teach Problem-Solving Skills to Kids,” by Ashley Cullins

How to Teach Kids Problem-Solving Skills,” by Amy Morin

Best Strategies for Parenting a Spirited Child,” by Alana Pace

Bad or Spirited? Picky or Discerning? Rude or Honest?” by Dona Matthews

Raising a Difficult Child? Try a ‘Spirited’ Spin,” by Dona Matthews

Calm, Sunny, and Sweet? Or Loud, Difficult, and Defiant?” by Dona Matthews

Study: Parenting Style Matters Most for Difficult Children,” by Zawn Villines

Tips on Temperament,” by Zero to Three

Temperament: What It Is and Why It Matters,” by Raising Children Network

Strategies for Parenting Children with Difficult Temperament,” by Karen Stephens

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