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My spirited toddler has trouble listening—here's what works for us

Taya is more intense, perceptive, assertive, uncomfortable with change, sensitive and energetic than others. She throws tantrums that would put the Tasmanian Devil to shame.

My spirited toddler has trouble listening—here's what works for us

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka wrote a book called Raising Your Spirited Child, and as soon as I read about this concept, it completely resonated with me. I realized that my daughter Taya, now 2.5, was a spirited child, but that I, too, used to be an even more spirited child… and still am! I'm a spirited mom!

Taya is more intense, perceptive, assertive, uncomfortable with change, sensitive and energetic than others. She throws tantrums that would put the Tasmanian Devil to shame. Parenthood often feels like an epic struggle that leaves me feeling completely exhausted and overwhelmed.

We have a structured routine and firm boundaries, but I also allow my child to do things on her own and give her choices. But aside from being intense, perseverant and energetic, my spirited child is also perceptive and sensitive. This poses an extra challenge because she child want to do things by herself (and give a strong impression that she wants to)—but then may not actually do it.

Cue the nagging. And the shouting. And the "If I have to tell you one more time…" threats.

Recently, my daughter started dressing and undressing herself. She still has trouble with some clothing items that she 'll need help with, and she can lose her patience easily when she's very tired—but on the whole, she is very proud of her accomplishments.

It helps when I allow her to choose her own clothes in the morning, to give her the sense that she is in charge. Still, getting her dressed or undressed remains a constant battle. If I tell her that it's time to get changed, she runs away. It seems like she is willfully ignoring me and it can be infuriating.

The other day, after telling her 20 times to get undressed, I sat her down and told her that it makes me angry when she doesn't listen to me and that I find it exhausting. I asked if she had any suggestions as to how we could make getting undressed for her bath easier for her.

She responded: "I have a suggestion."



Already congratulating myself that I had finally solved a great source of frustration by asking my spirited child for her cooperation, I asked: "Oh, great! What is it?"

She: "The elephant roars. In Africa."

Me, trying to hide my exasperation: "What? What are you talking about?"

She: "On the globe. I want to hear the elephant again. And the lion."

I understood. I'd only half noticed that she'd been playing with a toy that had animal buttons on the continents. I'd told her very loudly and firmly to get undressed, but she continued to play with the animals.

Even though I wouldn't have thought it possible, she hadn't even heard me. I probably could have shouted instructions at the top of my lungs, but she'd been away with the elephants and lions in Africa, so it wouldn't have mattered.

I realized two things: Firstly, our spirited children often seem more advanced than they are because they give the impression of being such capable "go-getters" and communicators.

Secondly, my perceptive daughter is distracted so easily that I need tools other than my loud voice to help her accomplish things. In fact, my loud voice just made her voice louder (because she models her behavior on mine)—she even shouts at her clothes sometimes if they don't come off. (Yes, funny, but humbling).

She definitely needs my full attention. Eye contact, getting down on her level, focusing on her. Talking to her in a contained, distraction-free space is also important. No open door, no toys, no sofas to jump on.

I decided there and then not to nag any longer.

I'd tell her that it would be time for the bath and she'd know that she doesn't bathe with clothes on. She'd have to get undressed. Then, I'd wait.

In the beginning, I'd read a book, because it would take about 15 minutes or so until she decided to get undressed. Because I didn't want to make unreasonable demands, I'd give her some hints on occasions, like: Why don't you start with taking off your leggings? (Knowing she found it very easy to do that without help). She got very upset when, as a natural consequence of her dawdling, her beloved bedtime routine got cut short.

Determined to stick to my resolution not to nag anymore, not even with threats to cut bedtime reading short, I recently did something a little more radical. After she wouldn't respond to me at all, I very calmly put her in the bath with her clothes on.

She didn't like it. And we agreed that in order to take a bath you have to be naked. She has been taking her clothes off at bath time, promptly, ever since.

After refusing to put her socks and shoes on, I let her walk outside barefoot on a rainy day. She very quickly decided by herself that it would be uncomfortable to walk to daycare barefoot in the rain.

I'll be trying routine cards next. I hope that visual cues help her determine that it is time for her bath—and time for getting undressed—or time to get dressed in the morning. Making her feel like it is her choice definitely works best when raising my spirited child.

It isn't always easy, and sometimes I lose my patience. I remind myself that parenting is and always will be a work-in-progress. I try to come up with new, creative solutions to guide my daughter down the right path.

And sometimes I just have to let her figure things out by herself.

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