They're struggling with a 'spirited' child

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 27, 2011 06:00 AM

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I have a 7 1/2-year-old son who has been showing increasing anger, both verbally and physically, towards both my husband and I and our 10-year-old daughter. He is a classic "spirited child," and when he is told "no" to something or asked to transition to another activity (i.e.turn off his PSP to come to dinner), he will say "no." After trying to talk calmly about it to him, he will start to escalate to "shut up" or some profanity. He can also throw things, slam doors, kick, or pull his sister's hair. It seems like nothing works. We have tried timeouts but that seems to enrage him even more. He refuses to go in a timeout, or if he does go, he "destroys" the room he's in. We've also tried taking away Wii or his PSP, but he says "I don't care," and it doesn't bother him. This has been going on for quite some time now, and I know it continues because we as the parents do not know what we should be doing for him?

From: Helpless, Franklin, MA

Dear Helpless,

For whatever reasons, your son has decided that the way to belong to your family -- and get what he wants -- is to throw a tantrum. Your job now is to undo that thinking. It won't be easy but family psychologist Linda Budd assures it's possible. And frankly, I don't think there's anyone in the country who knows more about "spirited" children -- she calls them "active alerts."

In a phone chat Tuesday, she said that even though your son says he doesn't care about losing Wii or PSP privileges, don't believe it. "It's just that he's smart enough to figure out that you think it's true," she said.

Taking away the games is your starting point, but here's what's got to change: You take them away not as punishment but as consequence, and not as a consequence for bad behavior but for not being responsible. That means a different set-up. Budd explains. "Remind him that having a PSP is a privilege, not a right, and privileges come with responsibility. You want him to have his PSP but it's his job to show you he is able to show you he is able to play responsibly, which means means turning it off when it's time."

Tell him you will give him a five-minute warning (or whatever you agree to), and it's his job to show you he can do that. If he can't, Budd says, tell him, "That shows me you aren't ready for this. We can try it again in a week." When he protests, which of course he will, be clear: "This is not about me taking away something you want. This is not about power and control. This is about me teaching you to learn how to be responsible. I think you can learn this and I'm going to keep trying until you do."

The other important piece of this is not just learning to tolerate his unhappiness, but also helping him to handle it.

"Active alert kids have bigger emotions than probably anybody else in the family. They need to learn what to do with them," Budd says. She recommends a "fuss box," typically a large appliance box, like for a refrigerator, where he can go when he's feeling these big emotions. He can do whatever he wants in there, like punch holes in it or scrawl on the walls. But, "It's not time-out. It's where he can put the really big emotions without hurting people or things," such as feelings or rooms. If the fuss box doesn't cut it in your family, he can go to his room and if he messes it, so be it, Budd says. "If he wrecks his room, tell him you feel badly for him and you'll help him pick it up."
That's another way for him to assume responsibility.

One way kids can understand about these emotions is to liken their outbursts to a volcano. When your son throws a tantrum, it's as if he's a volcano spewing hot lava over all the people he loves. Or as if he's throwing up all over them, she says. "Kids get this."

There's one other critical piece. Budd instructs, "You need to learn to disengage with him when he's having these tantrums, because otherwise you are paying a lot of attention to his negative emotions." That means you leave the room.

By the way, Budd says these electronic gadgets are a problem for active alert kids. "A weak part of their temperament is lack of boundaries. Too much sensory input puts them on overdrive so [under their influence] they are even less able than usual to self-regulate." When she meets with these kids in her office, she tells them the rule is, "Never let an IT interfere with an US." The gadget is IT; people are US. Tell him, "You may not even care about your PSP in a year, but we -- your family -- are here forever."

Budd is the author of "Living with the Active Alert Child."

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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16 comments so far...
  1. These are all fantastic suggestions. As a pediatrician, let me recommend to you that you find a good therapist to help you work through these strategies. It's definitely doable, but not easy, and you will need some moral support and guidance.

    Posted by koala January 27, 11 07:29 AM
  1. why do we have to label kids 'sprited?' this child sounds like a spoiled 7 yr old who has parents what have failed to consequence his actions. gimme a break. set some limits and stick to them.

    Posted by babyblue January 27, 11 09:32 AM
  1. babyblue, seriously? Did we not read the same letter? The LW imposes punishments (taking away privileges, sending him to his room). But it turns out that children are not robots -- they do not all respond in the same way to the same parenting techniques. Some kids are extra stubborn or high strung, and what you consider to be standard punishments only serve to wind them up more. If your goal is to teach a child right from wrong and help the child control his impulses and outbursts, that means flexibility and creativity and intelligence in parenting. We don't have to label kids "spirited" -- but we do have to acknowledge that children are people, and unique, and parenting requires thought.

    Posted by jjlen January 27, 11 09:57 AM
  1. I agree with babyblue (despite the use of "consequence" as a verb). The main reason for the bad behavior is bad parenting that has allowed it to blossom. I'm glad the parents are trying to turn this around -- better late than never.

    Posted by geocool January 27, 11 12:05 PM
  1. @babyblue and geocool....I have a friend like you. She thinks she could have my son for a day and he'd be all set. Just because she had the most inactive, disengaged, easy-going kid, she thinks she knows something I don't.

    I don't know if the proper word is "spirited", but it's not spoiled. I have two sons who I've always treated basically the same way, but one has always been sort of similar to this child, even as a toddler. He just gets MORE upset and MORE angry than he should about things. But on the other hand, he also gets way more excited about things, too, and is extremely loving and grateful and empathetic. He just has very intensified feelings.

    I think some of it is learned, but some of it they don't know how to control. I don't know about this kid, but my son is a perfect student and very well-liked by everyone at school. Once in a while he'll seem devastated and cry or complain at home about something that happened at school that I would consider very minor. However, he would NEVER show it at school, so all teachers think I'm nuts when I ask about his behavior - he's even been called a "model student". At home, he can be perfect or like a volcano. I think he holds it in and then it all comes crashing down when he's home because he's comfortable, with people who love him, not because he's "spoiled" and I don't set limits.

    Posted by mom2boys January 27, 11 02:16 PM
  1. mom2boys,
    My concern is that by applying labels like "spirited" we're now calling calling this a "syndrome," and as such only nature, not nurture, is to blame. I call BS on that. I'm sorry about the word "spoiled," I didn't mean to agree with the use of that pejorative.

    Posted by geocool January 27, 11 03:12 PM
  1. I totally agree with jjlen and mom2boys. Unless you have a "spirited" child (the term comes from an excellent book called "Raising Your Spirited Child") you just don't get it. The MORE quality is the big factor - there are children, from birth, who can cry longer and harder, stay awake longer, cling more, and just need more than one would be able to imagine. Their feelings are disproportionate to their little lives - I remember my oldest, "spirited," child having meltdowns at age 3 that tapped into a level of anger and rage I didn't think possible in someone so young. I just recall thinking over and over again, "what is he so enraged about?" They don't respond to time out, or removal of privileges, or being sent to their rooms (which they destroy), or yelling or spanking or punishment at all. Just as this letter-writer describes, a period of simple misbehavior that would be easily addressed with a typical child tends to spiral out of control with a spirited one.

    Anyway, I love Barbara's advice. This is one of the clearest explanations of the difference between positive discipline and punishment that I have ever read. To the letter writer, my husband and I were recently introduced to a book called "The Kadzin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child" and it is excellent. It's just good, practical advice for all kids, not just those who are extremely defiant. The techniques in this book align with a "positive discipline" philosophy and can be used on all my kids - ages 5 - 13 - and I use some of the methods with my Sunday school class as well.

    Posted by Jen January 27, 11 03:24 PM
  1. Love the strategy related to removing the PSP. My daughter is extremely well-behaved, but still has time when she struggles with the electronic device demon. During those times, it is removed from the environment until she learns to live again without being plugged in.

    @mom2boys, your last paragraph describes me to a T. I'm very together and successful in public, but even in middle age I will "lose it" at home because that's my safe place to do so. It is milder and less frequent than it was in childhood, but that tendency still exists.

    Posted by HP January 27, 11 03:55 PM
  1. @mom2boys, your last paragraph describes me to a T. I'm very together and successful in public, but even in middle age I will "lose it" at home because that's my safe place to do so. It is milder and less frequent than it was in childhood, but that tendency still exists.

    HP, I hope you don't take this out on other people at home, because that would be harmful and damaging to them, even abusive depending on what you mean by "lose it." Its not OK to hurt anyone because you feel safe and perhaps others allow it, particularly not those who deserve your best and to not be taken for granted. Best wishes

    Posted by Joyous January 27, 11 07:44 PM
  1. I think spirited is the wrong word. This brings up visions of saying a kid has ADD because he likes to jump out of trees. Willful and/or extremely stubborn is probably better.

    Barbara actually does not let the letter writer off the hook in the "spoiling" department, either, she just doesn't call it that. In their frustration, the parents are probably no longer offering consequences to a child who claims he doesn't care. When he wrecks his room, he probably doesn't have to clean it up or have some of the ruined things taken away, maybe because the parents are concerned about what will come next.

    I like the advice and second a therapist. Not to minimize this, because I've seen this behavior and know how frustrating this can be, but sometimes I wonder if some of this "spiritedness" can be fixed, at least a little bit, by making your children run around and play with something other than a PSP and a Wii! Go build a snow fort for a couple of hours!

    Posted by ash January 27, 11 07:44 PM
  1. I have a brother who is much younger than me and this letter describes our lives. He is 14 and we still are dealing with these same issues (although he has a few other problems thrown into the mix). The biggest thing we have learned is that once the child enters these tantrum episodes, there is no reasoning with them. It's hard to remember in the moment, but arguing with them, taking things away or punishing them during their tantrum will only make matters worse. They'll act out even more and state that they "don't care" because all they can focus on is what caused their rage. The child needs to calm down on their own before you can even begin to rationally deal with them. Believe me, my brother destroyed the door to his bedroom so badly that when he switched bedrooms in our house, his door went with him. Once their outrage has subsided, it is much easier to calmly deal with them.

    Posted by lynzie895 January 27, 11 07:49 PM
  1. Totally agree with Jen. My oldest daughter has always been the feisty one in our family. And I know my parenting didn't create this issue. Otherwise, how can you explain the fact that my youngest daughter is a cherub who never steps a toe out of line whereas my oldest will throw an unholy fit when things don't go exactly as she wants them to? They both have the same parents and have grown up in the same house, after all.

    I've finally come to accept that even though she's very bright, my oldest daughter simply lacks some of the emotional skills that her younger sister naturally possesses. And that isn't her fault, nor is it my fault. It just is. Some kids need extra help with math. Others need special assistance with reading. My daughter needs me to help her develop better coping skills. That doesn't make her a brat, nor does it make me a bad parent. It just means we both have to work harder at this than most.

    As for smug people who shake their heads at us "bad parents" and our "spoiled" children, all I can say is you just don't know what you're talking about. As Jen says, you can't imagine what it's like to parent a "spirited" child unless you have one. Anyone who *has* parented such a child knows the answer isn't to just get tougher. Actually, the easiest thing in the world would be to fall back on old authoritarian models of parenting, even though that stuff never works with these kids. It's much harder to try a fresh approach, as is suggested here.

    Posted by Robin January 27, 11 10:36 PM
  1. As a special ed teacher and mom of "spirited" child (now 20 and doing great in college), I want to reach out to Helpless. My second daughter was so much more emotionally volatile than the first. Went to a psychologist myself to try and figure out how to handle her. Absolutely keeping myself calm and somewhat detached was a big help. Yes to reframing the consequences as me "trying to help you learn how to be responsible" and "maybe next week." I did versions of those things with my daughter. Later, she helped repaint walls upstairs (that she had damaged years earlier) and helped hammer new door frames around doors that had also been damaged. Focus on what you can do now, helping your child learn that you are really trying to help him learn, keep firm, safe limits, keep yourself calm (and not reinforcing negative behavior). Finally -- please know that with a LONG time of consistency and love, they will learn and get better. My daughter and I can (sometimes!) even laugh about some of her earlier years. It's still on the mend, but she's doing so much better now. Hang in there and ignore the no-nothings who have nothing better to do with their time than point fingers (and avoid examining themselves). Good luck.

    Posted by Metrowest Mom January 28, 11 07:21 PM
  1. Great posts by jjlen, jen and mom2boys.

    Simply throwing out a blanket statement saying that this is a spoiled child and blaming the parents is not only short sighted and comes across as condescending and arrogant, it sure does not help remedy this situation and helping this child one bit.

    Each child is different and requires a different style of disciplining and parenting in general. Forcible ways most often turn counterproductive with some children.

    Posted by johnf January 29, 11 09:36 AM
  1. Look up Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities. A great book addressing some of this is "Living With Intensity" by Susan Daniels. Some kids (and adults) are simply "more" in all ways - more intense, more angry, more happy, more excited, more active, more curious, more questioning, more...more...more...

    Posted by KO January 29, 11 11:16 AM
  1. isnt a consequence and a punishment basically the same thing?

    Posted by Kid January 29, 11 06:41 PM
 
16 comments so far...
  1. These are all fantastic suggestions. As a pediatrician, let me recommend to you that you find a good therapist to help you work through these strategies. It's definitely doable, but not easy, and you will need some moral support and guidance.

    Posted by koala January 27, 11 07:29 AM
  1. why do we have to label kids 'sprited?' this child sounds like a spoiled 7 yr old who has parents what have failed to consequence his actions. gimme a break. set some limits and stick to them.

    Posted by babyblue January 27, 11 09:32 AM
  1. babyblue, seriously? Did we not read the same letter? The LW imposes punishments (taking away privileges, sending him to his room). But it turns out that children are not robots -- they do not all respond in the same way to the same parenting techniques. Some kids are extra stubborn or high strung, and what you consider to be standard punishments only serve to wind them up more. If your goal is to teach a child right from wrong and help the child control his impulses and outbursts, that means flexibility and creativity and intelligence in parenting. We don't have to label kids "spirited" -- but we do have to acknowledge that children are people, and unique, and parenting requires thought.

    Posted by jjlen January 27, 11 09:57 AM
  1. I agree with babyblue (despite the use of "consequence" as a verb). The main reason for the bad behavior is bad parenting that has allowed it to blossom. I'm glad the parents are trying to turn this around -- better late than never.

    Posted by geocool January 27, 11 12:05 PM
  1. @babyblue and geocool....I have a friend like you. She thinks she could have my son for a day and he'd be all set. Just because she had the most inactive, disengaged, easy-going kid, she thinks she knows something I don't.

    I don't know if the proper word is "spirited", but it's not spoiled. I have two sons who I've always treated basically the same way, but one has always been sort of similar to this child, even as a toddler. He just gets MORE upset and MORE angry than he should about things. But on the other hand, he also gets way more excited about things, too, and is extremely loving and grateful and empathetic. He just has very intensified feelings.

    I think some of it is learned, but some of it they don't know how to control. I don't know about this kid, but my son is a perfect student and very well-liked by everyone at school. Once in a while he'll seem devastated and cry or complain at home about something that happened at school that I would consider very minor. However, he would NEVER show it at school, so all teachers think I'm nuts when I ask about his behavior - he's even been called a "model student". At home, he can be perfect or like a volcano. I think he holds it in and then it all comes crashing down when he's home because he's comfortable, with people who love him, not because he's "spoiled" and I don't set limits.

    Posted by mom2boys January 27, 11 02:16 PM
  1. mom2boys,
    My concern is that by applying labels like "spirited" we're now calling calling this a "syndrome," and as such only nature, not nurture, is to blame. I call BS on that. I'm sorry about the word "spoiled," I didn't mean to agree with the use of that pejorative.

    Posted by geocool January 27, 11 03:12 PM
  1. I totally agree with jjlen and mom2boys. Unless you have a "spirited" child (the term comes from an excellent book called "Raising Your Spirited Child") you just don't get it. The MORE quality is the big factor - there are children, from birth, who can cry longer and harder, stay awake longer, cling more, and just need more than one would be able to imagine. Their feelings are disproportionate to their little lives - I remember my oldest, "spirited," child having meltdowns at age 3 that tapped into a level of anger and rage I didn't think possible in someone so young. I just recall thinking over and over again, "what is he so enraged about?" They don't respond to time out, or removal of privileges, or being sent to their rooms (which they destroy), or yelling or spanking or punishment at all. Just as this letter-writer describes, a period of simple misbehavior that would be easily addressed with a typical child tends to spiral out of control with a spirited one.

    Anyway, I love Barbara's advice. This is one of the clearest explanations of the difference between positive discipline and punishment that I have ever read. To the letter writer, my husband and I were recently introduced to a book called "The Kadzin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child" and it is excellent. It's just good, practical advice for all kids, not just those who are extremely defiant. The techniques in this book align with a "positive discipline" philosophy and can be used on all my kids - ages 5 - 13 - and I use some of the methods with my Sunday school class as well.

    Posted by Jen January 27, 11 03:24 PM
  1. Love the strategy related to removing the PSP. My daughter is extremely well-behaved, but still has time when she struggles with the electronic device demon. During those times, it is removed from the environment until she learns to live again without being plugged in.

    @mom2boys, your last paragraph describes me to a T. I'm very together and successful in public, but even in middle age I will "lose it" at home because that's my safe place to do so. It is milder and less frequent than it was in childhood, but that tendency still exists.

    Posted by HP January 27, 11 03:55 PM
  1. @mom2boys, your last paragraph describes me to a T. I'm very together and successful in public, but even in middle age I will "lose it" at home because that's my safe place to do so. It is milder and less frequent than it was in childhood, but that tendency still exists.

    HP, I hope you don't take this out on other people at home, because that would be harmful and damaging to them, even abusive depending on what you mean by "lose it." Its not OK to hurt anyone because you feel safe and perhaps others allow it, particularly not those who deserve your best and to not be taken for granted. Best wishes

    Posted by Joyous January 27, 11 07:44 PM
  1. I think spirited is the wrong word. This brings up visions of saying a kid has ADD because he likes to jump out of trees. Willful and/or extremely stubborn is probably better.

    Barbara actually does not let the letter writer off the hook in the "spoiling" department, either, she just doesn't call it that. In their frustration, the parents are probably no longer offering consequences to a child who claims he doesn't care. When he wrecks his room, he probably doesn't have to clean it up or have some of the ruined things taken away, maybe because the parents are concerned about what will come next.

    I like the advice and second a therapist. Not to minimize this, because I've seen this behavior and know how frustrating this can be, but sometimes I wonder if some of this "spiritedness" can be fixed, at least a little bit, by making your children run around and play with something other than a PSP and a Wii! Go build a snow fort for a couple of hours!

    Posted by ash January 27, 11 07:44 PM
  1. I have a brother who is much younger than me and this letter describes our lives. He is 14 and we still are dealing with these same issues (although he has a few other problems thrown into the mix). The biggest thing we have learned is that once the child enters these tantrum episodes, there is no reasoning with them. It's hard to remember in the moment, but arguing with them, taking things away or punishing them during their tantrum will only make matters worse. They'll act out even more and state that they "don't care" because all they can focus on is what caused their rage. The child needs to calm down on their own before you can even begin to rationally deal with them. Believe me, my brother destroyed the door to his bedroom so badly that when he switched bedrooms in our house, his door went with him. Once their outrage has subsided, it is much easier to calmly deal with them.

    Posted by lynzie895 January 27, 11 07:49 PM
  1. Totally agree with Jen. My oldest daughter has always been the feisty one in our family. And I know my parenting didn't create this issue. Otherwise, how can you explain the fact that my youngest daughter is a cherub who never steps a toe out of line whereas my oldest will throw an unholy fit when things don't go exactly as she wants them to? They both have the same parents and have grown up in the same house, after all.

    I've finally come to accept that even though she's very bright, my oldest daughter simply lacks some of the emotional skills that her younger sister naturally possesses. And that isn't her fault, nor is it my fault. It just is. Some kids need extra help with math. Others need special assistance with reading. My daughter needs me to help her develop better coping skills. That doesn't make her a brat, nor does it make me a bad parent. It just means we both have to work harder at this than most.

    As for smug people who shake their heads at us "bad parents" and our "spoiled" children, all I can say is you just don't know what you're talking about. As Jen says, you can't imagine what it's like to parent a "spirited" child unless you have one. Anyone who *has* parented such a child knows the answer isn't to just get tougher. Actually, the easiest thing in the world would be to fall back on old authoritarian models of parenting, even though that stuff never works with these kids. It's much harder to try a fresh approach, as is suggested here.

    Posted by Robin January 27, 11 10:36 PM
  1. As a special ed teacher and mom of "spirited" child (now 20 and doing great in college), I want to reach out to Helpless. My second daughter was so much more emotionally volatile than the first. Went to a psychologist myself to try and figure out how to handle her. Absolutely keeping myself calm and somewhat detached was a big help. Yes to reframing the consequences as me "trying to help you learn how to be responsible" and "maybe next week." I did versions of those things with my daughter. Later, she helped repaint walls upstairs (that she had damaged years earlier) and helped hammer new door frames around doors that had also been damaged. Focus on what you can do now, helping your child learn that you are really trying to help him learn, keep firm, safe limits, keep yourself calm (and not reinforcing negative behavior). Finally -- please know that with a LONG time of consistency and love, they will learn and get better. My daughter and I can (sometimes!) even laugh about some of her earlier years. It's still on the mend, but she's doing so much better now. Hang in there and ignore the no-nothings who have nothing better to do with their time than point fingers (and avoid examining themselves). Good luck.

    Posted by Metrowest Mom January 28, 11 07:21 PM
  1. Great posts by jjlen, jen and mom2boys.

    Simply throwing out a blanket statement saying that this is a spoiled child and blaming the parents is not only short sighted and comes across as condescending and arrogant, it sure does not help remedy this situation and helping this child one bit.

    Each child is different and requires a different style of disciplining and parenting in general. Forcible ways most often turn counterproductive with some children.

    Posted by johnf January 29, 11 09:36 AM
  1. Look up Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities. A great book addressing some of this is "Living With Intensity" by Susan Daniels. Some kids (and adults) are simply "more" in all ways - more intense, more angry, more happy, more excited, more active, more curious, more questioning, more...more...more...

    Posted by KO January 29, 11 11:16 AM
  1. isnt a consequence and a punishment basically the same thing?

    Posted by Kid January 29, 11 06:41 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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