Raising Our Wild Child
A year or so ago, a friend was struggling with how to peacefully parent her wild child. I commented on her post that 'strong-willed children become adults who change the world… as long as we can hang on for the ride and resist the temptation to 'tame'the spirit out of them.' I didn’t say it because we had that nailed in our home, and its by no means a concept unique to me. I offered it to encourage her to keep going on her path of gentle parenting and bring her a little hope that the hard days were worth the struggle.
When I was pregnant with our first baby I felt lucky to be coming into the whole motherhood thing with some knowledge and experience under my belt. I had a degree in education, had been a doula for 7 years, and had both professional and personal experience working with every age range from newborn to young adult including those who were high risk or had special needs. I had a sense of what things were important to me. I had an idea of what parenting techniques & beliefs I gravitated towards. I knew that parenting was going to turn me upside down and inside out but that was okay because I had walked with other women through that process many times.
When we were knee-deep in the newborn period and infancy it all felt pretty normal. There were the usual challenges of new motherhood and it was by no means “easy”, but I reminded myself often that parenting was a 24hr gig and that helped me cope. lol Levi needed his dad or I ALL*THE*TIME* but that was okay because we believed in gentle attachment parenting. We wore him and bounced him and rocked him and slept with him for the majority of every day. In retrospect Levi was a classic “high needs baby", but at the time I chalked it up to “normal newborn” and carried on.
Somewhere around 18 months though those high-needs characteristics became more…and more… and more challenging. I couldn’t go anywhere without physically wrestling him into his carseat while he screamed and continued screaming until I gave up and went home or we arrived at our destination. He breastfed all night long and every couple hours during the day. He was intense and sensitive and demanding and persistent. He pushed every button I had.
I reviewed my parenting books. I searched my favorite peaceful parenting websites. I talked with trusted family and friends. Advice ranged from “Just stop breastfeeding him so he stops manipulating you” (And give up the best comfort tool I’ve got?! No Way! Besides -- a toddler asking to breastfeed for nourishment of body & soul is NOT manipulation) through to “A good spanking will show him who’s boss” (We don’t hit out our kids. It is a violation of their fundamental human rights). There were mornings when I dropped Levi off to my mother-in-law with tears of frustration streaming down my face. No hugs. No I love you’s. Just walking away for a few hours while I was at work, knowing he was with someone who loved him, because I didn’t have another ounce of energy left in me to give at that moment. Those were hard days for all of us.
I came up empty-handed in my general ‘how to parent’ searching and my concern was growing so I started exploring if maybe my wee boy had something like AD(H)D or even a more serious disorder as his anger could be positively explosive, but those searches didn’t say “This is Levi” either. Then I stumbled upon an article entitled "7 Warning Signs Your Child May Be Spirited" and a lightbulb went off. My boy was ok! He was Spirited. Strong-willed. Difficult. High-needs. It was like the heavens opened and I saw my sweet baby in a new light. Every.single.description of a spirited child had elements of Levi.
I immediately started learning more about how to effectively parent a spirited child. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka was my 'Levi bible' for a little while. Even so, there were pieces of advice that I knew would never work. Lol. Always eager to keep learning I read The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel which was another gamechanger for our family. Things improved. I understood my boy in a new way yet again. We felt as though we were doing our best to parent in a way that honoured and respected who Levi was while providing him with the boundaries he needed to flourish as he grew.
When Levi was 4, he watched his little brother Lutka be born safely and gently at home. We were very intentional in our time with Levi and did our best to help him not feel displaced by the new arrival. Over the next 6 months though Levi's fuse became shorter, his demands more frequent, his anger hotter. He was telling us he was scared and he wouldn’t be in any room alone. He wouldn’t let us hug him or kiss him, or hold him when upset. He lashed out at the drop of a hat. It felt as though Levi was in charge of the house and we were all on eggshells constantly.
We needed professional help and so connected with a long-time family friend and respected therapist. They suggested that it was rooted in Levi feeling like he had too much power in the house and that we needed to establish again that Mommy & Daddy were in charge and were strong enough to keep him safe. Practically speaking, that meant when Levi was in a fury we needed to physically restrain him until he calmed in our arms. Thankfully I have NonViolent Crisis Intervention training and Levi hadn’t yet learned about momentum as we held him while he screamed, kicked, hit, and bit his way through the next month. Most days involved each of us being in tears at some point. It made sense that things would be harder before they got easier so we persevered though in retrospect I don't think we'd go that route again.
I felt though like there was still a piece missing and so I kept digging. I read Connected Parenting by Jennifer Kolari, and The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. Then a whole slew of books on Sensory Processing Disorder, as well as Kids Beyond Limits by Anat Baniel. Eventually with a friend's gentle prodding we explored the Autism Spectrum and after reading The Complete Guide To Aspergers by Tony Attwood we pursued a medical diagnosis. We've experimented with diet changes and probiotics and incorporating yoga and mindfulness into our family routines. Levi is still his wild child spirited self. No day is perfect but we feel like we're in a healthier place and on our way to helping Levi become whoever is. Still, as he continues to grow and each day brings challenges, we continue to explore and learn so that he gets what needs and our whole family can thrive.
Sometimes we have white knuckles. Many days we're tired. No day is perfect. But every day we strive to parent in a way that nurtures their spirit rather than tames or breaks it. The pressure is strong. Everyone has an opinion about how children should behave and what their day should look like. Everyone has an opinion about my role as a parent and what relationship I should have with my children. At the core of our parenting beliefs is the idea that our children are people - fully human - fully deserving of dignity and respect and kindness - fully deserving of our genuine apologies when we inevitably mess up. Our absolute respect for WHO our children are is what drives us to support them and love them without condition while simultaneously working to provide safe edges and boundaries so they can flourish. Their spirit is what makes them uniquely themselves. Rather than try to mold them into who we think they should be, we strive to provide the conditions that will allow them to thrive and their spirit grow into its fullness. Because “Strong-willed children become adults who change the world… as long as we can hang on for the ride and resist the temptation to 'tame'the spirit out of them."
Recommended Reading & Resources
The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
Parenting From The Inside Out by Dan Siegel & Mary Hartzell
Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Connected Parenting by Jennifer Kolari
Everyday Blessings by Jon & Myla Kabbat-Zinn
Brain-Based Parenting by Daniel Hughes
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