Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Kids with MORE!: Raising Your Spirited Child and Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child

In Victorian times they were called "naughty;" in mid-century they were "maladjusted" or just plain "spoiled brats." Whatever the label, "difficult" children have always been with us. Some grew up to be talented geniuses or leaders of society; some less fortunate or less well-parented did not. Now termed "strong-willed," or "spirited," we recognize these children as kids who are normal--and then some!

Authors Mary Kurcinka and Robert MacKenzie assure harried parents that these strong-willed children come with qualities which are prized in adults, but as young children who are "wired to be more," they can be strenuous to raise. Compared to the average child, such children are more persistent and yet more distractible, more energetic and active, more sensitive, more reactive and demanding more regularity in daily routines, and more extreme in mood, whether upbeat, soberly analytical, or gloomy. They have a hard time with transitions, hating to stop an activity they've committed to. They hear and see everything, it seems, except what their parents or teachers are saying to them. Some can't tolerate scratchy or too-warm clothing, crowds, or vivid sounds, smells, and lights. The normal slings and arrows of life, such as having their sandwiches cut in triangles (or not cut in triangles), can provoke long sob sessions, and a sudden change in plans can cause a tantrum.

Both authors describe these characteristics in similar terms, pointing out to struggling parents that these are temperaments which are genetic, hard-wired from birth for the most part, but also temperaments which have real strengths to be brought forth by informed and nurturing parents. Both authors offer advice about recognizing these children and the triggers which lead to "meltdown" when the child is on system overload. Kurcinka and MacKenzie offer extensive tips and behavior plans to apply to such situations as getting dressed, following directions, bedtime and sleep habits, mealtime behavior, dealing with visitors at home or away, non-routine situations such as vacations and holidays, and, of course, the big challenge--school.

Although the scope of both books is similar, there are some salient differences in style. MacKenzie's take is a bit more of a "tough love" stance. "The hard way is the clearest way for strong-willed children to learn your rules.... Strong-willed children are action learners. They require large amounts of hard data in the form of experience before they learn you mean what you say," he writes. MacKenzie's style is more succinct, with fewer anecdotes, and quickly gets down to pragmatic programs and tips for shaping behaviors in the child which help him or her mature safely and well. The text offers frequent shaded summary boxes to drive home key points. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child is a bit more of a a how-to manual, and if time is a factor (for parents, isn't it always?) his book helps the parent start changing the child's behavior right away.

Kurcinka's book, however, has some strengths of its own. She spends more time developing and describing the characteristics of what she terms the "spirited child." For example, in her longer discussion of the extroverted and introverted child, she points out that it is not the social skills of the child by which one determines the type, but the way in which the child renews his or her energy which is crucial: extroverts recharge by talking and socializing, whereas introverts renew themselves by solitary activity and thought. She takes pains to teach re-labeling, that is, replacing pejorative labels for spirited children with favorable ones. For example, she suggests pointing out to kids whose internal clocks are irregular that their flexibility will make them great emergency room doctors or fire fighters.

Kurcinka also gives much more attention to the match between the parents' inborn temperaments and the child they seek to guide, pointing out that if a child is "spirited," it's almost certain that there is a "spirited" parent, or at least grandparent, in his or her family tree. Kurcinka also stresses the importance of "getting to yes" with the strong-willed child, respecting the nature and dignity of the child whenever possible rather than simply imposing a rule. Recipient of the Parents Choice Award and recently fully revised, Raising Your Spirited Child is substantial, with 458 pages of text, but is absorbing, deeply thoughtful, and thought-provoking reading.

My advice to the parent seeking help with a strong-willed child would be to read Robert MacKenzie's book first to jump start a behavior modification plan and then to read Mary Kurcinka's book at a more leisurely pace for further insight and more nuanced advice. If face time with a book is limited, her text is also available in audio book and audio download format.

Other books which also deal with this subject are Transforming the Difficult Child, by Howard Glasser and Jennifer Eisley, Taming the Spirited Child, by Michael Popkin, Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, by Rex Forehand, and The Everything Parent's Guide to the Strong-Willed Child, by Carl E. Pickhardt.

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  • Thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:24 PM  

  • Sounds like more excuses for hyper-active children fed on a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. I'm sure they will all grow up to be geniuses - like their incredible parents.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:28 PM  

  • And how is it a bad thing to seek advice when dealing with a child who can be difficult? Maybe the advice starts out by changing a child's diet, but as the parent of a wonderful little girl who is very smart and strong willed, I'll take advice where ever I can find it and use whatever I think will work.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:38 PM  

  • I like that my child is strong willed. We are T.V. lite, junk food lite and high on physical play and engaging activities. I view my strong willed child as strong in many areas because of physical abilities, skills development, language skills....etc. One of my fav questions to my three year old is, "What do you think?" I want his strong will to work for him in life and guide him on the right path of personal self-esteem.

    I think sometimes people need to look at how to parent different temperments rather then a one size fits all approach.

    I do think your above reader does have a point, though addled with the sarcasm. I think that our diets of junk food, low physical activity, mindles T.V. and non-engaged parents do add up to "difficult" kids- - -I think they can be reved up and cranky because their needs aren't being met on very basic levels. Revising some of the basic practices for cooking, sleeping, activity times, and giving them direction can help the situation.

    Thanks for two really well done reviews.

    By Blogger Shannon, at 3:01 PM  

  • You might also consider The Difficult Child: Revised and Expanded Edition by Stanley Turecki and Leslie Tonner. Their first edition came out in 1984, so they have been working with and studying difficult children for a long time.

    As for understanding various difficult children (although less of a book about intervention) you might consider The Challenging Child: Understanding, Raising, and Enjoying the Five "Difficult" Types of Children by Stanley Greenspan and Jacqueline Salmon.

    Both books are quite readable and written by people with solid experience in the field.

    By Blogger Barry Dauphin, at 3:25 PM  

  • Just a word of advice for the parents of strong-willed children.

    Make sure that it really is just a strong will and not something else.

    For example, Asperger's Syndrome, particularly if it is not severe, can mimic a strong will.

    If your child "marches to a different drummer" and the techniques for managing a strong-willed child are completely ineffective, you owe it to your child to look into other possible causes.

    After all, if your child had a physical problem, you'd get it treated. Why should a cognitive disorder be any different?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:11 PM  

  • Barry beat me to it -- Turecki's The Difficult Child opened my eyes to what was going on with my son, lo these many years ago.

    I note without irony that this same son was diagnosed (at age 10) with Asperger's Syndrome at the beginning of this year. Turecki's advice was practically miraculous for us. I found "Spirited Child" to be a watered-down rehash of the same material.

    By Blogger Joan, at 9:59 PM  

  • Thank you, Anonymous 7:11, for posting that. I was thinking the same thing. My oldest child was "strong-willed" and books like these helped me parent her. The next two had me completely flummoxed, nothing I did worked. The older one would throw 20 minute screaming tantrums over little things like having to wait till we got home to get a drink of water, and the younger one bit anything that held still long enough for him to wrap his teeth around it, including his baby brother. They were both later diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Until we got the diagnosis, I just thought I was inadequate to the task of parenting three strong-willed children.

    By Blogger Wacky Hermit, at 10:22 PM  

  • Wow! All of you have some great suggestions and comments! Thanks to all of you smart people.

    In defense of these two authors, both did counsel further examination of children for whom these measures seemed not to be workable and pointed out that some perseverant behaviors might be Asperger's or other problems which needed professional diagnosis and treatment.

    As to junk food and low activity lifestyles, I'm with you all. However, the studies I've seen don't support the urban myth that sugar produces aberrant behavior. What it does do is displace real food in the child's diet! Little kids can't eat mass quantities of food, so they need to get the best nutrition from what they do eat. (I know this is easier said than done!)

    Thanks to all who shared their experience, reading, and wisdom!

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:58 AM  

  • Honestly, I was a "strong willed" child and I'm now a mother to a mini-me. I was never raised on junk food and little physical activity and neither is my daughter. As a matter of fact, she has never once eaten at a fast food restaurant.

    Kids are kids and take on the traits of their parents. Yes some may suffer from other obsticals like Asperger's Syndrome, but yet some just may be "strong willed."

    I love the person's comment above who said he's favorite question for his 3 year old is "what do you think?" I often ask that question to my daughter and I love that she can think and entertain herself. I find that as long as we're inclusive and give her the respect of having her thoughts heard, we get much farther. She also HATES to be told to do something. You can ask her and she will gladly do it, but if you tell her, forget it. Just like her mother.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:38 AM  

  • As someone with Aspergers (who married someone who also is an Aspergers neurovariant), I find the description of the strong-willed or difficult child rather specifically described our childhoods.

    Parents, please be careful not to presume that your child is just being stubborn, annoying, ornery, or psychologically maladjusted.

    We Aspies have brain-wiring differences that alter our cognitive processing systems and methods. We do not learn the same way, socially connect the same way (or at all in some cases), and we are VERY late in comprehending the _unspoken_ rules for human interaction that you neurotypicals absorb from your peers and next-older-year kids at pre-teen ages.

    Both my wife and I only started to understand human interactions in our mid-20s and mostly because we discussed between ourselves how to understand normal people and situations.

    It wasn't until I was 31 that anyone figured out that I was an Aspergers Autistic and my wife was too. Now, life is so much simpler since I can tell people that I work with (so they understand my oddities) while I'm in the process of learning how to pretend to be a normal-ish person.

    We Aspies are effectively blind to many/most subtle aspects of human non-verbal communication since we have a minimal or missing brain "mirror-complex" that you normals use as a biological co-processor to analyze body-language, positioning, tone, etc ... we have to willfully, consciously think about those things, which is slower, mentally resource-consuming and exhausting ... which is why kids meltdown and adultAspies need to be alone to "recharge".

    More importantly, young Aspies do not know that they have to pay attention to these conditions, nor HOW to do so or WHY ... I only started _really_ paying attention around age 31 ... before that, I was "difficult" ... no-one understood me, I didn't understand them and it really didn't bother me.

    I (incorrectly) assumed that merely having an IQ of 165 was the primary reason for the gulf of comprehension between myself and others. Now I understand that I have to watch for this nonverbal signalling that you normals do ... and that my IQ is part of my curse ...

    ... that the part of my brain that would have been allocated to nonverbal communication and understanding _people_ was instead genetically reallocated to forebrain analytic functionality, pattern-recognition and understanding _things_.

    My IQ and my inventiveness are part of a complex trade-off, leaving me handicapped and befuddled in dealing with humans.

    I have related all this so you parents of "difficult" kids might recognize something akin to me in your kids and that they are being "different" not "difficult".

    If your kids are minimally responsive to the unspoken communications you or their peers direct at them, act really strangely in school (which my wife did), have odd or age-skewed peer-relations (I did), prefers isolation and seems to have extensive misunderstandings and miscommunication ... please read up on Aspergers and if you see a similarity of patterns, get them tested from as young of an age as possible, before you waste more time and energy getting uselessly angry at someone who simply is missing the neurobiology to understand you.

    (My apologies ... I had meant to keep this short.)

    By Blogger Mark, at 12:11 AM  

  • Mark,
    You should write a book. You may not have picked up on body language as a young person, but you really have figured out a lot about your own cognition. What you reported was extremely meaningful and helpful.

    My theory is that we're all on a continuum, and a lot of us "normals" are closer to being "Aspies" than we know.

    One question: Did you earlier find literature (specifically novels) to be helpful in understanding human motives and communication or incomprehensible? Good novelists seem to build in dialogue cues describing how characters perceive things (e.g., "she said fearfully") or using omniscient voice to reveal both sides of emotional transactions to offer clues to the reader about what is going on in the story. Are these comprehensible to Asperger's readers?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:24 PM  

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