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055: Raising Your Spirited Child
12th January 2018 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:52:20

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Is your child ‘spirited’?  Even if they aren’t spirited all the time, do they have spirited moments?  You know exactly what to do in those moments, right?


Well then we have a treat for you today.  Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child, walks us through the ins and outs of her book on the same topic.  Best yet, we do the interview as a consult with a parent, Kathryn, who has read and loved the book, but struggled with implementing the ideas.

Warning: we spend quite a bit of time brainstorming very specific problems that Kathryn is having with her daughter.  You may not be having exactly the same problem with your child, but the brainstorming method we use is one you can do with a friend – take the approach with you to address your own problems, rather than the specific ideas.

Read more about Dr. Mary’s books and other work on her website.


Kurcinka, M.S. (2015). Raising your spirited child (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: William Morrow. (Affiliate link)


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Jen:                                      [00:39]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I know we’re going to help a lot of parents out today because we are here with Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, who wrote the book Raising Your Spirited Child, which I know is an absolute classic read for any parent of a spirited child. I read the book because a listener had requested an episode on it and what surprised me about it was that I don’t think my daughter is particularly spirited, but I definitely saw elements of her behavior described in the book and what I took out of that was that probably pretty much any child can have spirited elements of their personality or even just spirited moments. And so both the book and this episode are really for anyone who raises a child and who has ever had a moment where they think, “why won’t he or she just do what I ask.”

Jen:                                      [01:26]                   So Dr. Mary has a bachelor’s in early childhood education, a Master’s in family social science, and a doctorate in education. She has written four books on various aspects of raising children, which have been translated into 23 languages. Her son and daughter are now fully fledged adults and she lives with her husband in Bozeman, Montana. Welcome Dr. Mary.

Kathryn:                             [01:46]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [01:48]                   And so when I mentioned in my fortnightly newsletter, which you can actually receive by subscribing to the show, that I was looking for a coat interviewer to help me interview Dr Mary and really dig into the ways to apply the wisdom in the book. I received a number of responses, but one really stuck out. Kathryn is based in London and she has a four year old daughter who we’re going to call Jane in this episode and a son who’s a little over a year old and we’re going to call him George.

Jen:                                      [02:14]                   I asked Kathryn to help us with this interview because she’d actually read and love the book, but had been struggling with the application of some of the strategies. She’s tried hard to support her spirited daughter as she grows and develops, but has found a particularly challenged in some areas since the birth of her son. So we’re here today to really get into the book, but also go beyond the book and get the real lowdown on how to implement the strategies in the book when the first attempt has maybe been a little bit less than successful. Welcome Kathryn.

Kathryn:                             [02:41]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [02:42]                   All right. So Kathryn, let’s start with you. I wonder if you could please describe your daughter and how she fits into your family dynamic and I know you’ve read the book so you know that the words that are used to describe spirited children are very important. So what words do you use to describe her and what words do people around you who might not have read the book use?

Kathryn:                             [03:01]                   So after reading the book, I would say that in particular it was the intense and persistent elements that really struck a chord, but also she’s sensitive, very perceptive, a very high energy introvert, I would say. And just very articulate about what she wants, funny, enthusiastic, that kind of thing. And in terms of other peoples, there’s never been so much the label’s put on her I would find, but it’s just kind of when people talk, when they’d see something happening, you know, as if, oh, so and so that I know that they’re spoiled and oh well people don’t treat me like King Tut, or you know, just, it’s more in people’s tone. And I, I noticed as well since her brother was born that it’s more she falls into a particular persona kind of in contrast as the main older sibling almost.

Jen:                                      [03:54]                   Is that pretty common? Dr. Kurcinka?

Dr. Mary:                           [03:57]                   As the mean older sibling? Well, certainly one of the things we know about spirited children is their intent. So every emotion is intense, including jealousy, they’re also slow to adapt. So a shift in the family dynamic is certainly going to affect them, but they’re also incredibly perceptive of the stress levels within our family and so often it’s the spirited child who I refer to them as our stress barometers because they’ll often start acting out because they’re taking in the stress around them. And obviously a new baby brings a great deal of stress to a family dynamic.

Jen:                                      [04:42]                   Yeah. Do you feel as though that’s really impacted your family dynamic, Kathryn?

Kathryn:                             [04:46]                   Yes, I would say that has made a huge difference because I think, you know, when people talk about age two and age for as being particularly noteworthy in our family, it was really age three. But I think that’s because that was, you know, in the leadup my pregnancy and then the birth of her, her brother, the starting of preschool. So many things kind of happened at that period of time and therefore also our resources were that much less to kind of cope with it. And whereas I had kind of taken everything on with her, largely myself, because I stayed at home, I didn’t go back to work after my maternity leave and had kind of tried to protect her a little bit there because she had very distinct needs as far as I could see it in terms of being a little bit more sensitive to stimulation and to situations and things I had kept her under my wing a little bit in that respect. Whereas I couldn’t obviously do that with a newborn and also just adjusting to letting go a little bit in terms of preschool, you know, and no longer being her whole world anymore. That kind of rattled things a little bit and of course changed the family dynamic quite a bit and then adding an extra person.

Jen:                                      [05:58]                   And these are all fairly natural things to happen, right? Brothers and sisters are born and their children tend to go up to some kind of care or preschool or something. Dr. Mary, how can we help children and prepare them for the kinds of transitions that Jane’s been going through?

Dr. Mary:                           [06:15]                   Well, there’s several things. One is, as you said, with the starting preschool, there’s also a change in routine in one of the things I talk about and work with families on in my private consultants, there’s two aspects to effective discipline, there’s structure, which is the routine, the rules, the expectations, they’re the things that remain pretty stable and then there’s the emotion coaching and the challenge with a new baby and starting preschool is the structure gets disrupted and so if you think about it’s kind of like all of a sudden moving or changing jobs or changing bosses at work that all of a sudden there are…what you expected in the past is no longer occurring. Things are different, so in preparing them, one is reforming that structure and creating predictability for them, which will then reduce the frequency and intensity of the meltdowns, leaving you the patience and energy to do the emotion coaching when it needs to be done.

Jen:                                      [07:25]                   Yeah, Dr. Mary, you just said something really profound there that helped me to understand the gravity of these kinds of changes in a child’s world. When you talk about being comparable to moving for an adult or changing a boss for an adult, you know, I think if there was a big deal, I need to figure out what a new boss wants for me and how I interact with that person and you know, even as something as simple as changing a child’s teacher at preschool, you might think, well all the other teachers are still there and all the other children is still there, but that’s a very different interaction and it makes me feel as though, oh yeah, I can understand that. I can understand why that would be difficult for a child. Does that help us to bring more compassion to it, do you think?

Dr. Mary:                           [08:02]                   Well, I think it is important to look at that and look at this situation, yes, very compassionately. And that’s another thing that we can do is actually reduced expectations on that older child, which can be hard because it’s like, okay, now you’re the older one and I need to be taking care of the baby. But one of the stress reactions you’ll see is shut down. And shut down behaviors are, I can’t dress myself, I can’t walk, I can’t feed myself, and the natural reaction to those responses are you could do it yesterday or you could do it an hour ago and we push to have them do what they’re capable of doing, but what they’re actually telling us is I’m so overwhelmed, I’m shutting down. And so one thing that we can do as a parent is proactively say to them before they’re demanding, carry me, dress me, feed me, is, “is today a day that you can dress yourself or do you need help?” And if they say I need help, we help them because we recognize, wow, they’re dealing with a lot of stuff here. And so instead of fighting and struggling, we help them, but we also nudge them by saying, okay, you know, today I’ll help you, but pretty soon maybe even tomorrow you’re going to surprise me and do it yourself again. So we let them know we’re not doing this for ever, but we can see that right now, you need a little extra support.

Kathryn:                             [09:46]                   Do you see that dynamic in Jane, Kathryn? Yes, and I think some of those kinds of things about the dressing herself and things like that, that was a little bit easier for me or when we had in meal times the returned to kind of wanting to be fed for a little while or when my son was weaning than wanting to be on our laps as well and so some of that we definitely saw and I think I was used to a little bit more doing things at her own pace beforehand, so that part of it was a little bit easier for me, but I struggled a little bit. I think with things that were just suddenly new in those transitions, so transition around having the new sibling created a kind of a new level to my own intensity. I think in terms of a protectiveness over the small person than she had never shown aggression really before then to see some of those behaviors being targeted towards him specifically rather than wanting to be baby. But something that kind of felt like a bit more of an emergency in the moment kind of thing. That was triggering to me in a way that I hadn’t really been triggered as much in the past,

Dr. Mary:                           [10:54]                   And you’re absolutely right, Kathryn, you know, as a mom who are very protective of our children. It’s kind of the mother bear syndrome and one of the things I think that’s important to recognize, especially with a four year old, four year old and many spirited children, tend to be very bright and have excellent language skills and so we often assume that they have an understanding of things that they don’t because they are so verbal and so when we see behaviors that are potentially dangerous to the baby or a safety issue for the baby, the question becomes what is Jane feeling and needing in this situation? So is it an issue that she actually doesn’t realize, you can’t hug a baby that firmly. And so it’s teaching her how to hold and touch the baby. Is she feeling jealous? So instead of pushing the baby, teaching her to say I want him to go away, and that when she uses the words, we actually at that…because we’re teaching the words at this point, set the baby down and hold her because she used words instead of action. So it’s in those situations stopping to think what is she feeling or needing. Is it a skill issue? Is it a feeling she doesn’t know how to express appropriately. But as a four year old she has no idea that she can harm the baby.

Jen:                                      [12:39]                   Wow. I would never have thought that. Wouldn’t you think that if you hit something it might hurt. But no, that’s a very profound realization I think to understand that a four year old can’t think that.

Kathryn:                             [12:51]                   And I think sometimes if there are kind of two elements to it and like for, it’s the intensity piece around just that kind of out of control, excitement/anxiety, kind of that, you know, in the beginning in particular, if I’m trying to spend time just one on one with her to have a little bit of that, she actually would reject that for quite awhile. And she always wanted to know where he was and oh, if he was asleep she wants to be there waking up. Like she just really didn’t want to take her eyes off him. Like really was affectionate to like overzealously affectionate, but you know, in a way you would expect. But just couldn’t. It was like, yeah, simultaneously just out of control, affection and anxiety around the situation that she just couldn’t quite get to grips with, it felt like.

Dr. Mary:                           [13:42]                   And, and I think that’s an interesting choice of words when you say kind of anxiety about it. And again with the energy and that frenzied energy, we look at the fuel source because that frenzied energy is saying she’s...