By Stephanie Dunnewind
Knight Ridder Newspapers
hen it came to punishment, Adah Morrison has an older daughter who'd burst into tears with a simple admonishment such as, "I'm so disappointed in what you did."
Her daughter Autumn, however, refused to even take a timeout: "I would have had to sit on her to get her to stay there," said the former school teacher.
By temperament, some kids are, as variously described, "spirited," "strong-willed" or "difficult."
Parenting such a child can be, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times. They can be obstinate, insistent, defiant and hyper. But also bright, creative, funny, affectionate and unconventional.
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, who published the first edition of her popular book "Raising Your Spirited Child" in 1991, defines "spirited" by certain common traits: Kids tend to react strongly; have a hard time moving from one activity to another; are very perceptive in noticing noise and colors; are sensitive to emotions, tastes or clothing, and adapt slowly.
Many are also energetic or moody, need time to warm up to new situations, and keep irregular schedules of eating and sleeping.
All children possess these characteristics, she said, but spirited kids more so.
"Spirited kids are the Super Ball in a room full of rubber balls," she said. "Other kids bounce 3 feet off the ground. Every bounce for a spirited child hits the ceiling."
This can wear out even the most patient parents and put them at risk for The Glare from strangers -- or worse.
"As the parent of a spirited child, I got a lot of blame for his behavior," said Tonnie Wolfe, a registered nurse and parenting coach who teaches a "spirited child" class at the Family Support Center in Lynnwood, Wash. She volunteers her time as an instructor for the free class because she wants to make sure others "don't feel like such a rotten parent."
Dozens of times she heard the phrase "If you would just (be meaner, be gentler, be harder on him, be easier on him), then he wouldn't behave this way."
While parents can change the way they react to kids to defuse situations, they can't alter their child's temperament.
"Many people are still unaware that there is a genetic aspect to how we respond to the world around us," said Kurcinka, who teaches parenting classes in Minnesota. "By temperament, some kids get upset faster and stay upset longer."
If parents understand why children react the way they do, they're less likely to interpret actions as deliberate defiance, Kurcinka noted. They can also help children learn to manage their impulses and strong feelings as they get older.
For example, many parents assume a tantrum is always manipulative. But some are what Kurcinka dubs "spillover" tantrums when a child is overstimulated or having a hard time making a transition. Unable to deal with the flood of emotions, they explode.
Experts' advice for dealing with spirited children is often the same as with other children, but like the kids themselves, just more so. Parents always need to be consistent and clear about expectations and consequences. Otherwise, spirited kids will push any boundary they can -- hard.
Three common parenting tips backfire with spirited kids, Kurcinka said. These are: timeouts as punishment (she recommends a "timeout" as a calming technique before kids get into trouble); ignoring them (a persistent child will never give up); and just letting them cry (spirited kids usually need help with soothing and calming).
"The typical advice for handling temper tantrums doesn't work with spirited children," Kurcinka writes. "A spillover tantrum can't be stopped by ignoring it because your child is dealing with a temperamental issue. He needs your direction to help him calm himself and regain self-control."
Another tip for strong-willed children that goes against traditional parenting advice is to add "OK?" to requests. While this is normally dismissed as wishy-washy, it's an easy way to give kids a sense of control, notes Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, the author of "'You Can't Make Me' (But I Can Be Persuaded)."
"A small point of negotiation usually makes the difference," Tobias said. The "OK" lets a strong-willed child know "you realize she does always have a choice."
Instead of fighting a child to do something a parent's way, it's usually easier to figure out ways to help a child be successful. For example, rather than yell at a child for having a hard time with a transition, parents can warn him with a countdown before it's time to go.