These nine traits do not each exist in a vacuum. They also interact. An energetic, intense child may turn into a whirling dervish in an exciting situation, as she becomes more and more overstimulated. An irregular child who is starting to lose it due to hunger may reject offers of food, because of his automatic first reaction, then may continue the rejection due to persistence (persistence seems to interact with all the traits).
Statistically, 10 to 15 percent of all children have enough of these traits to be challenging. And, because of their temperamental makeup, traditional discipline techniques don't always work. Often, we are told to ignore behavior we don't like -- it will go away. But how do you ignore a child who is more persistent than the you are?
The key to the spirited child is understanding why he is doing what he is doing. Spirited kids don't usually have the manipulative tantrums that most kids do -- the "I'm going to hold my breath till I turn blue unless you buy me that candy" type. Spirited kids have what Kurcinka calls "spill-over tantrums." They become swamped by their emotions, pushed beyond their temperamental ability to cope. The parents of spirited kids become masters of prevention -- we learn what triggers these melt downs and try to stop them before they start. Since some spirited kids have little awareness of their hunger or fatigue, we have to learn to read the cues and feed them or enforce a rest time before they reach the critical point. When they are becoming overstimulated, we have to remove them until they can calm down. We cut tags out of clothes, which are always selected for comfort. But, unfortunately, we are not perfect! Life is unpredictable, and we sometimes end up in situations we can't control. A spirited kid can be fine one second and flooding the next. A perfectly nice family outing can turn when the unforeseen occurs: a change of plans, a loud noise, sudden hunger or fatigue.
Life with a spirited child is exciting, maddening, frustrating and exhilarating. As a cartoon on my refrigerator says, "I know she'll be a wonderful adult; it's just a matter of getting through childhood." Our kids have many wonderful qualities. They're creative, loving and vivacious. As adults, they will take the world by storm. I often wonder what some famous people were like as children. Imagine Robin Williams as a kid. Think of the trials Thomas Edison's mother went through -- he must have been forever taking things apart! And Leonard Bernstein, on a recording of St. Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" talks about playing music with water-filled glasses at the dinner table ("I used to do it all the time ... which didn't please my mother too much.").
So, the next time you see our kids melting down in the market, or in a restaurant or park, step back and try to see what's really happening. We're not bad parents, we just have spirited kids, and we're doing the best we can.
Deborah Shafritz is a volunteer for PEP: Postpartum Education for Parents. PEP primarily provides support services for postpartum distress.