Tales from the Parenting Trenches: Navigating Life with “Spirited” Children


“Our son had so many tantrums as an infant and toddler that every family picture his older sister drew, depicted him with a purple face.” 

By Sabrina Connell | Twitter: @sabrinaconnell

I often tease that my kids are like Gremlins. Remember those little creatures? Feed them after midnight or expose them to water and you create a monster. Only in the case of my children, rather than food or water, the impetus for their transformation into tiny, unmanageable little creatures might be exposure to particular textures; or the word “no.”

I’m convinced children should come with warning labels. If they did, our son’s most likely would have said something like, “Prepare for disagreement. Tantrums resulting in head-banging and loss of breath. Fainting may occur.”

Our daughter’s would have read: “Avoid contact with moderate light or noise, clothing tags and seams.”

The early years of parenting are particularly challenging as the time is so often spent managing the intensity of our children’s most exhausting characteristics. We could always count on our daughter to become over-stimulated, overwhelmed and victim to her powerful imagination. Likewise, we could expect our son to collapse into a raging fit at least once during every outing. As I tried to maintain my composure and sanity, both compromised by sleepless nights and the constant soothing and attention the kids required through the day, I read every popular parenting book I could find that addressed “high needs” children.

In the book Your Fussy Baby, I came across a chart that the author, Dr. William Sears, had compiled, listing descriptive words parents use to label their young children during those more challenging years of nurture and reframing them as descriptive words for similar traits as teenagers and adults. I printed the chart and put it on our refrigerator, stealing away glances as I grabbed the milk, gently reminding myself to keep some perspective.

The Changing Personality Profile of the High Need Child 

The words you use to describe your high-need child will change over the years, as the traits that so exhausted you during infancy are channeled into qualities that will make your child an interesting, dynamic adult. Try to think of your child’s personality in a positive light and look ahead. Labels that seem like negatives will be positive traits in your child’s future personality.

[Download as PDF:  THE CHANGING PERSONALITY PROFILE OF THE HIGH NEED CHILD.]  Source: www.askdrsears.com

Of course, it all makes sense when we think about it. The traits that drive us most crazy about our children now, are often exactly the types of traits we’d like them to have as adults. Our son had so many tantrums as an infant and toddler that every family picture his older sister drew, depicted him with a purple face. Five years later, has he become less persistent? No. But he manifests that same persistence and passion now as an intense commitment to tasks, taking on challenging puzzles and working through problems rather than giving up.

Does his unwavering desire for debate drive me crazy? Absolutely. I would love it if, just once in a while when I ask him to do something, he’d respond with a “yes” the first time. However, I like to hope that the go-against-the-flow attitude he so willingly practices with me will one day translate into an ability to question the judgment and requests of his friends and avoid peer pressure. Recent research suggests it may.

When our daughter was in kindergarten, she came home quite disturbed after she witnessed a friend shove a raisin up his nose far enough to warrant a trip to the school nurse. Afterwards, our daughter avoided solid food for four days, subsisting on yogurt she would lick, before she came to us in a desperate panic asking to go to the emergency room. She was convinced a raisin was lodged in her own nose, accidentally shoved up there at some point when she may have missed her mouth while eating. I found myself sobbing with laughter before I could muster the seriousness I needed to calm her down and remind her that the raisin episode was something she had seen at school and not something she had done herself.

The sensitivity and imagination that overpowered her then, has since allowed her to be acutely aware of what others around her may be feeling. She demonstrates empathy beyond her years. Similarly, whatever internal mechanism caused her to respond so severely to clothing tags, seams and loud noises has opened her senses and allowed her to be moved deeply by music, poetry and beauty. I’ve come to think of her sensitivity as her own personal superpower.

When my children behave in such a way that leaves me counting down the minutes or hours until bedtime, I try to pause and consider how their behavior might benefit them when they are mature, self-controlled adults. It’s not an easy process. In the heat of the moment, when I’m frustrated by the fact that I’ve just spent the past 15 minutes arguing over which shoes my son will wear to school, I need to be careful that I don’t assert parental control in a manner that runs the risk of breaking his spirit just “because I said so.” Finding the balance between establishing boundaries and encouraging our children’s development of “self” takes practice and is something that none of us manages to perfect, but we can take comfort in knowing that the return on our investment is immeasurable.

For more advice on parenting spirited children, check out:


Dear SheLoves readers, I would love to hear:

  • Which of your children’s behaviors test your patience?
  • Can you think of how their behavior might benefit them if channeled appropriately?
  • What are some strategies you use to avoid being overwhelmed by those more challenging moments of parenting?


About Sabrina:

An artist-turned-academic, Sabrina spends her days navigating between a wide variety of roles including that of mother, wife, graduate student, researcher and daydreamer. She is currently a doctoral student in the Communication Studies program at Northwestern University where she researches the various ways in which children and parents engage media and technology and the potential effects these interactions might have on the development of children. Prior to her time at Northwestern, Sabrina earned a Master’s degree in child development from Tufts University, as well as a Master of Arts in puppetry from the University of Connecticut. She has a passion for all things involving play, whimsy and the art of nurturing.