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Parenting a Spirited/Difficult Child in the Time of COVID-19

It’s challenging for all parents, but for some it’s harder. Here are 18 ideas.

 Chris Seward/Flickr
Source: Chris Seward/Flickr

Orchid children, spirited kids, those born with a difficult temperament—some kids are harder to parent than others. The challenges are more pronounced now for all parents in the time of COVID-19, when schools are closed, libraries and parks and beaches and museums are closed, and parents are home alone with their kids.

There is no easy formula that is guaranteed to work with every child, but there are some promising approaches that have emerged from recent research findings. These suggestions are valid for parenting every child, but are especially useful now, and with children who might be described as orchids, difficult, or spirited.

  1. Breathe. Pay attention to your own moods and feelings. When you're feeling angry, impatient, or irritable, stop what you are doing. Pause and take a deep breath. Remind yourself you are only human and doing the best you know how in a time of widespread anxiety, uncertainty, and worry.
  2. Smile. Even if it starts out as a grimace or a groan, do what you can to find your sense of humor.
  3. Be kind, loving, available, and patient. Steadfast, reliable, unconditional love can transform the life and development of a difficult child, but it takes a lot of time. In The Orchid and the Dandelion, Thomas Boyce writes there is no substitute for a parent’s reliably available time and attention. Quantity matters, and you have that now. Boyce writes, “Quality time is simply a cultural myth.”
  4. Model the behavior you want to see. If you want your child to be calm, co-operative, and reasonable, you have to behave like that. This is hard right now, especially if you have financial, health, or other worries, but do your best. Apologize to your child when you get it wrong, and keep trying.
  5. Work to understand your child’s temperament. Pay attention to what your child needs to feel comfortable and safe, what they need in order to keep learning and growing. Your child’s temperament may be different than yours. It’s not their fault—or yours—if they’re difficult or slow to warm up.
  6. Accept and affirm your child’s temperament. Don’t try to change it. Notice the difficult factors—you can’t avoid them—but try to think of them as evidence of your child’s spirited nature, factors that can stand them in good stead as time goes by. Sensitive children can discern their parents’ judgments, whether spoken or not, and they respond deeply to those opinions.
  7. Adapt your demands to your child’s temperament. If you have a highly reactive child, be patient as you help them learn self-calming methods. If you have a child who has trouble learning to focus, be patient and systematic in giving them the skills they need to self-monitor and re-focus.
  8. Ensure balance. All kids, regardless of temperament, require balance in their lives, including sleep, nutrition, affection, activity, stimulation, playtime, and quiet time. The more difficult your child, the more important this is.
  9. Provide the comfort of the ordinary. Orchid/spirited children can be alarmed—yes, really, alarmed—by new foods, new people, new smells. All children benefit from routines they can trust, but reliable routines are particularly important for these kids. Regular family routines—meals, chores, schedules—provide a sense of control and trust in a world that feels chaotic and unpredictable. This is more important now than ever.
  10. Make time for fun. Play can bring life’s problems down to size, and help when you're grappling with frustration, sadness, and disappointment. Because orchid/spirited children feel the hurts more acutely than others, they more urgently need time for play, fantasy, daydreaming, and imaginative fun.
  11. Give advance notice. All kids make easier transitions when they know what’s coming next, and when, but for some kids, advance notice is essential to things going well.
  12. Listen. No matter their temperament, a child who feels listened to has an easier time being patient when things don’t go their way. Of course, it’s harder to listen patiently if you have a difficult child, and of course, it’s even more important that you do so.
  13. Say "yes" whenever possible. “Yes! You can have a cookie. As soon as dinner is over,” instead of “No, you cannot have a cookie. Eat your dinner, now!” Same answer, but a different spin, almost certainly eliciting a different response from your child. Kids who trust that their wishes are being taken into account find it easier to comply when the answer has to be “no.”
  14. Choose your battles. You don’t have to correct everything all at once, and things go better if you take it one step at a time, especially now when so many of the usual activities are closed.
  15. Be as positive and supportive as possible. Put a positive spin on any suggestions or reprimands you feel you must make. “Can you show me how to sit at the table like a big kid?” instead of “Get back in your seat this minute!”
  16. Provide both protection and encouragement. Some kids—especially those who are orchid/spirited/difficult—have trouble with new situations, and they should be protected from more exposure than they can handle. That includes online meetings, like online teaching or family gatherings. The balance between protection and encouragement is hard to get right, and is constantly shifting as situations change and your child matures.
  17. Be patient. Remember that everything develops. With time, love, understanding, and patience, even the most spirited child can learn to be kind, cooperative, and dependable. Be patient with yourself, too. This virus has us all worried. It is not easy to raise a spirited child at the best of times, and this is so very much not the best of times.
  18. Be kind. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your spouse if you have one. Be kind to your child. This time is not forever, so just do your best to get through it as kindly and calmly as possible. And remember to breathe.
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