In defense of the challenging child

Nikka Santos
Life with children is a physical and emotional feat for any parent

WATER WORLD. Fascination is reflected in toddler Aidan Gan's eyes as he plays with water.

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – They don’t cry, they shriek. Their meltdowns seem to last forever. Tantrums can erupt from the most inane things, like running out of their favorite cereal. How dare you! Gummy bears, NOW! They can embarrass you in grocery aisles or family reunions. They refuse to give lola a kiss. 

Some are not typical active toddlers — they’re bolts of lightning, striking fast and unexpected. Turn around for 2 minutes and they’ve figured out how to open the window from your 10th floor condo. They want to enjoy the view with half their body out, hair blowing in the wind.

Psychologists sometimes call these super kulit, super likot phenoms as high-needs children. Another term used by child development experts has a positive spin — spirited. The spirited child is simply more than other children. They are more active, forceful, vulnerable, discerning, or relentless than their peers — overwhelming even the most patient parents. Sounds familiar? 

8 traits of the spirited child

1. Intense – When he’s in a good mood, he’s smiling, laughing, and singing endlessly. He is over-the-moon ecstatic. Jokes will be funny long after the punch line. On the flip side, when upset, tears flow fast and furious. When angry, he can turn impulsive and hit, kick, punch, or bite.

2. Relentless – If she wants something, she asks for it non-stop. This behavior can be called persistence when channeled for good purpose. But if it’s a toddler relentlessly asking for a toy or extra ice cream, it’s seen being bratty and stubborn.

3. Sensitive – He has a low sensory-threshold for noise, lights, temperatures, tastes, smells, sometimes feeling on his skin. A noisy blender can scare him to tears. Tags on clothes can be unbearably itchy, even painful. According to Mary Sheedy Kurcinka author of the book, Raising Your Spirited Child, this is because some toddlers need more time for their nervous systems to develop.

4. Perceptive – She notices everything down to the smallest details. This can be a problem when trying to complete tasks as she is distracted by other things. Young children are still learning how to screen out extraneous stimuli.

5. Rigid – His cereal can only be mixed with bananas. Sandwiches can only be cut into squares not triangles. These quirks prompt adults to call them picky or demanding. But Kurcinka explains, for many children, it indicates a need to cling to the familiar for a sense of security. 

6. Energetic – Always on the go, her busy mind fuels action. She never runs out of questions. This young adventurer is always on an expedition. It could be climbing your top-most cabinet to see what’s inside, or ransacking the closet for daddy’s ties so she can knot them together to make a giant cobweb. 

7. Difficult adaptability – He has a hard time adjusting to new places, people, or situations. In preschool, separating from mommy is excruciating. In parties, he is slow-to-warm and needs extra time and coaxing to mingle with other kids. Someone says hello and he clings to your hand and hides behind your back.

8. Advanced limit-testing skills – Perhaps you call her Drama Queen or just downright scandalous? Explorations Preschool Directress Didi Manahan observes how some children are especially good at testing limits and breaking parental resolve to get what they want. Their methods include crying and wailing, tears welling up in doe eyes, and rhythmic, repetitious chanting.

PLAYFUL PRINCESS. 2-year-old Zoe Ayesha Addog

It’s not personal, it’s just spirit

Let’s face it, children do not come into this world with good manners built-in. Parents and caregivers should not take a young child’s misbehavior personally. They still have much to learn and it is our job to teach them how to behave.

Manahan has two words for dealing with childhood meltdowns and shenanigans. Stay calm. Your anxiety, self-doubt, and anger only fuel a child’s meltdowns. 

But being calm does not mean giving in. Say “No,” despite the ear-splitting response. Stand your ground but don’t lose your cool. Losing it shows you’re not in control. Some children throw tantrums just to elicit parental reaction, even if the reaction is anger.

Manahan explains, “The child in the throes of a meltdown is a poorly socialized, emotionally immature, adult-dependent 2-year-old. He is not a manipulative, malicious adult. It becomes our responsibility to use the situation as a teaching moment.”

It’s also important to let them know it is normal to feel anger, hurt, or frustration. They just need to learn how to express negative feelings appropriately. Helpful mantras include: “Use your words,” “Gentle hands,” “Indoor voice,” “Say it softly,” and “Be nice.” 

Set a good example yourself by staying calm when explaining the lesson of the moment. 

6 tips for living with spirit

1. Be consistent with your limits. Starting toddler age, set basic rules. At 3 years old, a child can understand that, after playing, toys must be packed away. Explain that new toys are for special occasions and only mama or daddy has the final say on what we can get at the store. Children actually find comfort and security in adhering to reasonable rules and routines.

2. Avoid over-explaining. When your answer is “No,” offer short, clear reasons when your child asks, “Why?” For example: “It isn’t safe,” “It’s time,” “We don’t hurt,” or “We don’t waste.” Manahan suggests that when a child asks the 3rd time after you have explained twice, distract with another activity. Or you can say: “I explained why already. Next time you ask for a toy, I’ll be quiet so you can remember.”

3. Filter-in. Transitioning is difficult for any toddler, more so for the slow-to-warm type. To help, give them a heads-up on what to expect. Before a party, tell them where you’re going and describe expected scenarios: “You’ll be with other kids. The music will be loud but there will be games and cake. It should be fun.” New and still apprehensive about school? Let them come in 15 minutes early to warm up to the new environment.

4. Pick your battles. Understand and give in to what is reasonable. Cut those itchy clothes tags. Or accept that your little one is not ready to walk barefoot in the sand just yet. Developmental experts explain, it may be nothing to us, but for some children, these “silly” things are indeed uncomfortable since their immature senses are still on overdrive. 

5. Encourage healthy passions. Channel all their intense energy into something constructive or creative. Observe what captures their interests — building blocks, arts and crafts, music or sports. Whatever it is, give them plenty of opportunity to engage in it. All kids also benefit from playing outdoors. They won’t have much energy left for making trouble if they have had an active day.

6. Become a master of prevention. Author Kurcinka believes high needs children have little awareness of hunger or fatigue. They’re too busy exploring! Learn to read their cues and get them to rest, nap or eat before a situation is set off. Set a routine schedule so it’s easy to set activities accordingly. But also, get to know your child, as each one is unique. Eventually, you’ll be an expert at predicting and avoiding their tipping points. 

IT'S YUMMY, MOMMY! 2-year-old Max Mendoza

That’s the spirit!

Having a spirited child is actually a blessing. Those traits that make them difficult are the same ones that can make them successful adults. Manahan, who has been teaching preschool and grade school children for many years says, “We like them with spirit!” Child development experts worry more about children who are too quiet, too passive, and too compliant.

Pediatrician Dr William Sears says, “The same drive that gets your toddler into trouble also leads him to a level of creativity toward which other children may not venture. Your job is to help him drive more carefully on roads that he can handle.”

Intensity can turn into passion, stubbornness into persistence. High energy fuels achievement. Sensitivity and perceptiveness are keys to learning, understanding, and empathy. All those traits in symphony can lead to creativity — the one thing that separates humans from all other animals.

So set boundaries and discipline, just make sure you don’t extinguish that fire inside them. The world needs people with spark. Hang in there. In a few years, that frisky, sensitive child can turn out to be the most wonderful surprise. –

(Rappler welcomes contributions on children, parenting, and family matters. Email us your story and photos with subject heading FAMILY to

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