mutual guidance

I’ve been meaning to post for a while on what a difference Raising Your Highly Spirited Child has made in our family. But this article in The Atlantic pushed me to post sooner. (The article details how researchers have shown that, while some people have a genetic predisposition to psychological catastrophes, those same people, if nurtured well, can turn their potential liabilities into measurable assets.)

Our dear little Peanut, the tightly wound, sensitive, intense, persistent, introverted, empathetic, strong willed child is my greatest challenge. (When I typed “three-year-old” as a tag for this post, wordpress automatically suggested a previously used tag: “help, I’m being held hostage by a three-year-old.” ‘Nuff said.)

I can handle demanding bosses and confrontational colleagues and obtuse clients and tight deadlines, but my child is harder than anything I’ve ever come across. Because I want to do more than just love him; I want to allow him to be himself, guiding him to a future in which his self esteem and social skills will allow him to do whatever he wants with his life. I want to help him become his best self without squashing his individuality or molding him to my will. I want to find a way to apply gentle, attachment parenting styles to a child most parents would beat into submission and who, daily, takes way more out of me than I have to give. I want him to exist within firm, thoughtful, and broad boundaries within which he is free to explore with wild abandon whatever interests and compels him. I want him to be a full participant in our family, not a pet or accessory. I want what might seem like weaknesses now to become strengths, not just memories.

But it often feels like he is killing me.

To that end, I greatly appreciate Mary Kucinka’s Raising Your Highly Spirited Child because she breaks down some of the personality traits that parents find difficult to manage in typically developing children, and offers an empathetic perspective and some very practical advice on guiding (rather than managing or changing) behavior. One obvious technique she dispenses with quickly, before a lengthy quiz in which readers can discern just where on the spectrum their child resides and the specific realms in which she is “more” than other children, is to rename characteristics as assets. “Difficult” children can be strong willed, energetic, or cautious rather than stubborn, out-of-control, or shy.

What I appreciate even more than the specific advice, the enumerated parameters, and the reassurance, really, that my child has always been a whole handful and a half (and it’s not just my imagination), is the section that acknowledges that oftentimes the almost constant stream of adrenaline that comes from raising a spirited child intensifies when parents are highly spirited, too. I have been called by my family most of the negative terms Kurcinka urges us to reframe as strengths. Her bold acknowledgment that “recommending that spirited parents keep their cool was a denial of their own intensity….It doesn’t work to simply say, ‘I am supposed to be cool.’ The fact is, you’re not” rocked my world. I thought I was a failure for not keeping cool all the time. Now I know I was being me and just need different tools to keep both Peanut and myself from losing it at what turn out to be easily forseeable moments.

The retraction of Kurcinka’s former stance that parents should just stay calm during a child’s most intense moments absolutely melted me. Her book is not a license to autocratic parenting behavior, as so many are, and her suggestions are teaching me how to guide myself as I am guiding Peanut. For instance, I taught him (very easily because he was open to both the technique and the acceptance of his intense passions it implied) that it’s okay, when other people are too much, to politely excuse yourself to your room to have some quiet time and get enough energy to deal with them again. That frustration and anger and hitting come from feeling like you can’t get away but that, really, you can notice that before it happens and get the space you need. Now I have allowed myself to say the same thing to him. “Love, I’m out of people energy and need a little quiet time with a book; I’ll be in my room for a few minutes and you’re welcome to come with me to quietly read your own book” is now something we both respect (and really enjoy). He usually declines because he doesn’t find me draining, exhausting, or infuriating most of the time. When he does want to rip my throat out, he tells me in calm, reasonable tones that he doesn’t like my approach and offers his own suggestions for making things better. We work on issues until we find a solution we both like (unless it’s a non-negotiable issue, in which case I have firm boundaries. But at almost four he’s way beyond fighting sunblock, seat belts, or holding hands in the street.) But when we’re not pressed up against on of those, we’re having a much better time figuring everything out.

16 thoughts on “mutual guidance

  1. “Her bold acknowledgment that “recommending that spirited parents keep their cool was a denial of their own intensity….It doesn’t work to simply say, ‘I am supposed to be cool.’ The fact is, you’re not” rocked my world.”

    And now you just rocked mine. I am going to have to read that book. Thanks so much for this post…it’s lovely and thoughtful and inspiring. You’re SUCH a great mom. For reals.

  2. You are a great mom!!ELEVENTY!!!

    I’m a stubborn bitch – I get shit done. I pull out the bitch card when I need it (or think I need it), which may or may not be appropriate for the situation. Only a smidge of the human population gets that the cards they hold don’t work across all situations – they aren’t all trump cards. Wow, just wow for teaching peanut about having different cards and options. I didn’t learn it (from reading books also) until about college – my parents are still clueless.

  3. I need that book. Miss D. and I are both intense, but in completely different ways…I think it will be a lifetime struggle for me to understand her.

    You are good, Momma.

  4. I just bought a book about raising boys because I feel so lost with my wide-open, spirited son (I only have sisters). This book sounds like an even better option for us. Thanks!

    • The book isn’t perfect, and I’m not necessarily a big fan of her writing style, but man it has added a fistful of options to my parenting rolodex, and has added a heavy shower of empathy to my reactions.
      Oh, Steel, I’m there now. I don’t get my brother, either, but my kid is a genuine visitor from another planet and I feel ill-equipped as his guide to our society.
      Kitch, I hear you, and I didn’t realize until I read the book that, just as it’s okay that he’s way beyond the intensity spectrum, that I’ve spent my life trying to rein myself in. Why can’t I be a handful, too? The book says I can.
      jc, I’m a stubborn bitch, too. And I totally embrace that now. I know that P is a more stubborn and bigger bitch, but I’m okay with that. Cuz the times I’m just gonna win because I’m a stubborn bitch, I throw down the “I hear your point, I understand, and I am not goign to change my mind” card. It’s so rare that he heeds it. Shockingly.
      Ink, I thought you’d hate the way I quote that line, what with having complete sentences within my original sentence. But I’m way too out of practice and tired to do it correctly, and you got the point: she rocked my world by saying it’s not natural to shut down my own personality. Thank heavens.

  5. I need that book. NEED it. Struggling right now and have been, to be honest, since he first arrived screaming and uncompromising into the world. Spirited is the word. On the good days anyway, that is the word I use. Total freaking nightmare is the words I use on the not-so-good.

    Not sure how to be a good parent to this boy of my mine… all help greatly appreciated.

    Thank you for the recommendation x

  6. Thanks for the review, Naptime…as someone who works w/preschoolers w/social-emotional issues, I’ve been meaning to read that book. I know a lot of parents of kids I work with could probably benefit. Quick question: how accessible is it for parents with lower literacy levels?

    Regarding the whole keeping calm as parent thing, you might be interested in Daniel Siegel’s book “The Developing Mind.” (Grammar nerd alert: it bothers me that I can’t put that in italics, instead of quotes. Hmph.) There’s a section that explains how the brain works using your closed fist as a model. Basically (very, very basically) your fingers are the cerebral cortex (responsible for judgment, reason, etc.), your thumb–folded inside the fist–is your limbic system (emotions, fight/flight reflex, etc.). When we are under stress, we tend to “flip our lids” (flip fingers up), thus shutting off our ability to use our best judgment and reacting purely from a place of emotion.

    Here’s the interesting part: Kids do this all the time. Their cerebral cortex is not yet fully developed, so they have a much harder time regulating their emotions. But! We are wired with mirror neurons that tell us to get excited/emotional/whatever in response to seeing it in our child. So…they flip their lid, we flip ours. It’s not a “failure” on your part–it’s in the brain hard-wiring.

    I think that one of the greatest gifts we can give kids is not to never have extreme emotions around them, but to show them how to manage these emotions appropriately. Sounds like you’re doing a bang-up job of that.

  7. I loved the quote, and I loved the way you quoted it. Just added the book to my holiday wish list!

    But even more than that, I loved how you thought about the issues and how you wrote about them. You rock.

  8. ah, Inky, I’m so glad I finally found my long-lost sister! You’re too kind.

    Falling, it’s interesting, Kurcinka tries to be accessible and uses lots of concrete examples, so I think high-school-level readers will have no trouble. But if you’re talking second language readers, it might be a bit wordy and excessive. That’s outside my expertise, really. But it’s always worth a try. Maybe it’s at the library, or maybe you could keep a couple of used copies to loan out? I would be willing to write you a cheat sheet summary, but I think reading the examples and taking the quiz on *how* spirited your child is makes a huge, huge difference and is more important than any aphorisms I might pull out for a handout. Let me know, though. And let me know what you think once you read it.
    And a big thanks for the cerebral cortex flying off the limbic handle example. I have been acutely aware of the mirror reflex since P was born, but it’s nice to hear there’s a neurological reason I cannot stem the adrenaline when he loses it. I do know, though, that they have no moderator in their emotional spectra, and that once children start going along any emotional path, they have almost no ability to stop and turn around. That’s why we learn all the tricks, right? Exhausting.
    I’d love any recommendations you have on good scientific reads…I gain more empathy from learning the neuro-biological reasons behind behavior than from the touchy-feely explanations of *why* I should have empathy. Bring ’em on.
    Josie, I hope it helps. I didn’t write the book or anything, so I have nothing to lose if you hate it and want to tell us all that. I feel as you do, still…like a visitor to another planet where I dearly love the alien I’ve met but really freaking resent all the powers that be who have tasked me with ensuring his safety, emotional well being, and basic social skills. Aren’t there people for that? Can’t I just cuddle up and read with him? Check out, too, if you want (for if memory serves your son is about a year old) Penelope Leach’s book Your Baby and Child (Falling is writhing right now because as the site administrator I can use italics in comments.) Pretty interesting. Most of the rest of my reading has been sleep research, which did me little good except the book that showed just how many kids don’t sleep through the night until age 3-4, and just how futile sleep training would be with intense and persistent children like mine. I’m glad I’m finally graduating to daytime parenting.

  9. Glad my long-windedness is at least marginally useful. If you want more science-based stuff, check out Dan Siegel’s work. He also has a great book called (damn you, missing italics!) “Parenting from the Inside Out.” There’s also a book I haven’t read, but have heard great things about called, “What’s Going On In There?” by Lise Eliot I heard about it during a research project about parent-child interaction; when I commented on one mom’s really beautiful interaction with her child, she said that reading that book really helped her understand how this little person worked.

    I will check out RYSC from the library or from one of my work colleagues…can I contact you about it in the future?

    Josie–the above reading might also be of interest to you, based on what you wrote. If you are open to more touchy-feely stuff (it’s not too witchy-woo, but she does occasionally mention “sending loving energy”), I’d highly recommend Jane Nelson’s “Positive Discipline” series that I mentioned in an earlier comment. It’s less about why this is happening and more about what to do about it. I’m happy to give you more info if you want:

    (P.S. I’m trembling a bit as I read all this, because, based on his infancy thus far, Tankbaby is gearing up to put each of my firmly held professional beliefs to the test…care to start a pool on whether I bust out the “BECAUSE I SAID SO” before he turns two?)

    • Falling, I have begun What’s Going on in There but can’t remember if I like it. Shameful. but I’m in the middle of test driving eight or so books, and my head has never been screwed on exactly straight. I’ll check out the others.

      At least once a week I say, “Because sometimes I say things and you just need to do them. That’s why.” Not proud, but not ashamed, either.

  10. I sooooo needed to read this today. One of my children can really push my buttons (probably since we’re so much alike – much to my chagrin). Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this book and article.

  11. I love that you do all this research and then share it. I feel like I’m so behind, like I’m missing all the deadlines of reading before the quiz. I’ll have to check out this book. It’s been a week when I feel like I don’t have a handle on this parenting thing after all.

  12. I have this book and I really like it. Reading it I realized that my oldest is a huge introvert, and when she starts acting up, she usually needs time away from people and situations. I also loved how the author helps you replace adjectives that describe your child from negative to positive, such as: not stubborn, but passionate. It really helped me see my daughter in a new light.

    • Gibby, I had the same epiphany about my son’s introversion…and my own. We now both have the skill to just ask for some alone time. He will leave a play date in the middle to go to a quiet room with a book because that’s what he needs. And now he gets why I need to, as well. Yay for finding something of use in any of the books we’re willing to put our time into. Even if that’s all we got out of it, it’s completely worth it.
      Fae, I hear you. That’s why I have picked up three new books this week. Over.whelm.ed.

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