May 10, 2009

Taming the Wild Child

In the throes of the terrible-twos? Raising a challenging child? I gathered some expert advice for the
May '09 issue of Working Mom Magazine.

We love them, but they're a lot of work!

Life with toddlers is a physical and emotional feat for any parent. But face it, some children are more challenging than others.

You've seen them or maybe you're raising one yourself. They don't just cry, they shriek. Their meltdowns can take forever. Sometimes, those tantrums erupt from the most inane things - like you ran out of bananas to mix with their cereal. How dare you?!

And they're not just typical active toddlers. They are bolts of lightning, striking fast and unexpected. Take your eyes away for two minutes and they've figured out how to open the window from your 10th floor condo.

This little phenom might be called "wild child" by some exasperated parents. The proverbial "super kulit" and "super likot". Child development experts call them high-needs children.

Another term du-jour has a positive spin: "spirited". The spirited child is simply "more" than other children. More active, forceful, vulnerable, discerning and relentless than their peers, overwhelming even the most patient parents and caregivers. Familiar? Experts have identified certain traits they exhibit.


Intense - When they are in a good mood, they are smiling, laughing or singing endlessly. They get over-the-moon ecstatic. Jokes will be funny long after the punch line. On the flipside, when sad or upset tears flow fast and furious. When wound up or angry, they turn impulsive and end up hitting, kicking, pinching or biting.

Persistent - If they want something they can ask for it non-stop, if allowed. You could call it toddler tenacity, but it's more like stubbornness when the goal is another new toy or extra candy.

Sensitive - In her book Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka notes that some children have low sensory threshold for noise, light, temperature, taste, smell, even touch. A noisy blender can scare them to tears. Tags on clothes can be unbearably itchy, even "ouchie".

Perceptive - They notice everything around them, down to the smallest details. This is a problem when trying to complete tasks since they are distracted by so many other details. As young children, they have yet to learn how to screen out extraneous stimuli irrelevant to a task on hand.

Rigid - Their cereal can only be mixed with bananas. Their sandwiches can only be cut into squares. Not triangles! These are just some quirks that make adults call them picky or demanding. But for most kids, this is simply a need to cling to the familiar for a sense of security.

Energetic - Always on the go, they have a strong need to engage their bodies in movement. Busy minds also fuel the action. They are little adventurers on the quest for the next expedition - maybe it's to climb the top most cabinet, or ransacking your orderly closet to make a giant cobweb using daddy's ties.

Difficult Adaptability - They have a harder time adjusting to new places, people or situations. In school, separating from mommy or yaya is excruciating. In parties, they will be slow to warm and need extra time and coaxing to mingle with other kids.

Advanced Limit-Testing Skills - School Directress Didi Manahan runs Explorations Preschool and Keys Grade School. She has noticed that some children are especially astute when it comes to testing limits. Their young minds have already figured out how to experiment in ways to break parental resolve. To get what they want, they may try: crying and flailing, a tantrum with hurling and retching, maybe quiet tears welling up in doe eyes, or rhythmic, repetitious chanting.


Unfortunately, kids do not come into this world with built-in manners. Parents and caregivers should not take a young child's misbehavior personally. They still have much to learn and it is our job to teach them how to behave.

Manahan has two words for dealing with outbursts: stay calm. Your own anxiety, self-doubt and anger only fuel a child's meltdown.

But being calm does not mean giving in. Stick to NO despite the ear-splitting response. Don't give in just to shush them. Some children may actually throw tantrums just to elicit parental reaction, even if the reaction is anger.

Manahan points out: "The child in the throes of a meltdown is a poorly socialized, emotionally immature, adult-dependent two-year-old. He is not a manipulative, malicious adult. It is our responsibility to use the situation as a teaching moment."

We must also let them know we understand they may feel anger, hurt or frustration. They just need to learn how to express these feelings properly.

Some toddler mantras that help: "use your words", "gentle hands", "gentle voice". Again, stay calm when explaining the lesson of the moment.

See what interests him. Help him discover healthy passions.
Keep him away from trouble.


Set limits and be consistent. Starting toddler age, you can set some basic rules. At two-years-old, a child can already be taught how to pack away toys after playing. They should also be able to grasp that new toys are for special occasions and mom or dad has final say on what we can get at the store. Consistency means rules apply at home, lola's house, and school.

Avoid ever-explaining. When you say no, give short understandable reasons when your child asks "Why?": It isn't safe. It's time. We don't hurt. We don't waste, etc. Manahan has other suggestions: When a child asks the third time after you had already given your explanation, ignore or distract with another activity. Or you can say: "I explained why already. Next time you ask, mommy will be quiet so you can remember."

Filter-in. Transitions are difficult for any toddler, more so for the slow-to-warm spirited type. To help, give them a heads-up on what to expect. Before a party, tell them where you're going and describe expected scenarios: "...there will be lots of other kids, maybe lots of music, but there will be games and cake, it should be fun." New and still apprehensive in school? Bring them 15 minutes early to warm up to the new environment.

Understand and give in to what is reasonable. For instance, give in to cutting those itchy clothes tags. Or accept that your little one is not ready to walk barefoot in the sand just yet. Use aqua socks. Author Kurcinka believes it may be nothing to us, but for some children, these little things can really be uncomfortable since their immature senses are still on overdrive.

Encourage healthy passions. Their bodies and minds crave to be busy, so help them channel their energies into something constructive. Maybe building blocks, drawing or origami can keep them engaged. A sport or hobby can also be good for releasing energy. They won't have much left for trouble.

Become a master of prevention. Kurcinka believes high-needs children tend to have little awareness for hunger or fatigue. They're too busy exploring the world! Learn to read their cues and get them to rest, nap or eat before a situation is set-off. Observe. You have to get to know your child as each one is unique. Eventually, you'll be an expert at predicting their tipping points.

Get her moving! She'll be too tired for mischief.


Then again, we can't control everything. Life has its surprises. That frisky toddler you love is one of them. So if you have him in tow and the food is taking too long in a restaurant... relax. Just use the time to engage your child while you wait. He may just learn something from you - like how to cope with the unexpected.

Realize that having a spirited child is also blessing. Those traits that make them "difficult" are the same ones that can make them successful adults.

Intensity can turn into passion, persistence into tenacity. High energy fuels achievement. Sensitivity and and perceptiveness are keys to learning, understanding and empathy. But it takes a lot of guidance to make this happen.

According to well-loved pediatrician Dr. William Sears: "the same drive that gets your toddler into trouble also leads him to a level of creativity toward which other children may not venture. Your job is to help him drive more carefully on roads he can handle."

So set boundaries and exercise discipline. Just make sure you don't extinguish that fire inside them. The world needs people with spark! Hang in there. In a few years, you could be in for a wonderful surprise.


Anonymous said...

Oh Niks. I'm so glad you printed the full article as it should have been. Post on Multiply and FB too. There's a lot of wisdom here. Your kids have beautiful spirits. :)

Viva La Vida Mama said...

Thanks for the assignment love!

Cely said...

What a beautiful, well-written post! Who said that motherhood was easy?

I'll keep your article in mind. Thanks!

gissy said...

Thanks, finally got the ending :)

Viva La Vida Mama said...

and thanks for visiting gissy. haay the perils of publishing and layout disasters. viva la blogger!

hi cely, glad to know this resonates with you. motherhood is wonderful but is not always easy really....

xkwzt said...

Excellent article!

I have a highly-spirited (and I use this term carefully and deliberately) 4yo boy. Most other parents raise their eyebrows and whisper ADD; I think he just needs more love and understanding than other kids.

This was a welcome virtual pat-on-the-back to keep trying.

Viva La Vida Mama said...

Spirit IS good. I find a room full of quiet kids scary. The challenge is to set limits without killing their spirit... and so we try our best : )