Fatherhood and the Spirited Child: 7 Tips for Parenting a Fiery Child

One of the beautiful mysteries of parenting is how different our kids can be from each other.

One child can spend hours playing independently, and another wants constant engagement with others. One child tends to be mellow and adaptable, the other is easily excitable and highly energetic.

It’s beautiful, yet also has the potential to completely stymie us just when we think we’ve got our parenting groove on.

I called my youngest daughter (now 5) my “tiny dragon” as one of her pet names early on in her life, because her temperament is fiery and intense, and because of the fact that she was much more physical at a younger age than her older sister.

The contrast between the two has been a beautiful thing to watch over the years, but it has also caused us to learn some new skills and forced us to grow as parents. What worked with our oldest daughter just doesn’t cut it with her younger sister, and any attempt at talking to her during one of her fiery outbursts quickly deteriorates into a battle of wills (and this child has a will of iron!).

I’ve learned a few things about being a father to a fiery child, and while they may apply to other kids as well, the following tactics are especially potent with a spirited or intense child.

Fatherhood and the Fiery Child: 7 Tips for Parenting Your Spirited Child

  1. Keep your cool: First and foremost, don’t let your child lead the situation (or better yet, don’t follow their lead), and make sure that you’re in control of your own mind and emotions, so that your own reaction doesn’t escalate the situation.
  2. Practice diversionary tactics: Knowing how and when to use diversion to ‘break the spell’ can be the most powerful tool in your parenting skillset, as some of our kids act as if they are under the thrall of their emotions and they need something to break the cycle. A simple quiet “Look at this” or “Let’s go see what’s happening in the back yard” in a calm voice works wonders to shift their focus and help them move past the emotional issue at hand. This doesn’t mean that we ignore or gloss over their feelings – we are just giving them space to change their focus, and we can talk over the underlying issue when the yelling and screaming is done.
  3. Use the sidelines: Many times, if there are other kids around, it’s best if we can take our child away for a bit until they have gained a little control over themselves again. I explain to mine that if she is screaming or using her body on the ‘other players’, then she needs to go ‘sit on the bench’ until she is ready to play nicely with others. Removing a kid from the situation without an explanation or a way for them to return to playing might just blow up in our face – kids need to know why, and they need an ‘out’ for their situation.
  4. Please feed the animals: This may seem overly simple, but when children get hungry, they can get pretty cranky, which sets the scene for a meltdown if we aren’t careful. And some kids are very sensitive to low blood sugar or an empty belly – mine sure is! If we can address the situation and feed them before the doo doo hits the fan, or if we can ‘break the spell’ and put food in front of them, it might give us the edge we need in order to bring some order back into our chaotic family condition.
  5. Follow the schedule: Some kids freak out on a regularly occurring schedule – i.e., at 3 pm everyday, little Joe loses his patience and throws a fit – and therefore knowing our own child’s schedule and adjusting our activities accordingly goes a long way toward helping things go smoothly. Consider keeping a snack bag or coloring book or favorite CD (with headphones!) at the ready, and try to feed them before the regularly scheduled meltdown happens. Or don’t schedule play dates or group activities during this time.
  6. Everyone needs downtime: One of the biggest challenges for parents of young fiery children happens when they stop taking a nap during the day. Our own ‘quiet time’ disappears, and we’re left scrambling for things to fill that time with them. Even the most spirited child needs some time to play quietly by themselves, and just because they don’t need a nap anymore doesn’t mean that they don’t require some ‘down time’ to recharge. Having a special bag or box of activities just for quiet time will help us to facilitate some independent playtime for them.
  7. Empower them: I’ve noticed that my daughter really needs to feel like she has some control over her life, and not just what outfit she wears or what she wants to eat. We try to give her some power over the activities in her life, and always attempt to respect her choices. We don’t let her control us or her siblings, but we do let her know that we listen and respond to her with love. Sometimes it’s as easy as allowing her to decide the order of things in her life (Get dressed before or after breakfast, sit over here or over there, turn left or right when we go for a walk, etc.), and sometimes it’s more about just listening to her and acknowledging her feelings and decisions than about ‘giving her power’.

While these spirited children may be cause for extreme frustration, and may cause us to stretch and grow as parents, our world is in need of more spirited individuals, and I can’t wait to see what gift mine brings to the world.

Got a fiery child at home? Leave me a comment with your additions to this list, please.

Image: woodleywonderworks at Flickr

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

20 thoughts on “Fatherhood and the Spirited Child: 7 Tips for Parenting a Fiery Child

  • Virginia

    I’ve managed to successfully parent a spirited child to adulthood. There were times I didn’t think either of us would make it. That kid, though. She will be the one to make the world stand up and take notice, she’s doing it already.

    Your suggestions are right now. One thing I did, also, was to do a little temperament theory study to learn more about myself and why *I* react in certain ways to things, in order to help her in her reactions to things. There are others out there that are just as good, but I did the MBTI survey. Not only was I better equipped to give her what she needed, I found out a few things about myself along the way.

    Thanks for the post. 🙂

  • Wow, yes. Fiery is the best way to put my 4yo girl into words. She is definately defiant of everything I try to offer, as simple as a glass of water! It is really a challenge to keep my cool because she will feed off my frustration. It is difficult at times to sway her from the fit. I simply tell her “if you want to throw a tantrum that’s fine, but do it in your room and you can come out when you’re finished”. This helps most days, but her fits are not always scheduled..they are sparadic and can generate for no given reason apparent to me. I try reasoning and helping her overcome whatever feeling it may be, but it is definately a challenge raising a fiery one! And I feel bad sometimes for big sister because she is such a ood girl, but with the fits from the little one it seems she may get more of the attention. I try not to let that happen, and I try to make big sister feel special for being such a good girl and mommies little helper. Craft time is a big hit for all of us! Construction paper, glue sticks, glitter and water paint really make for a relaxing and enjoyable afternoon. Thanks for your tips here I am printing them out now!

  • Points one and five, in my opinion, are completely key. Being a divorced father I can attest to the value of consistency. I work my schedule around my time with the kids not the other way around. The other is keeping your cool and controlling the situation. It takes just a few occurrences of the indians managing the chiefs and the proverbial Pandora’s box is opened up and then its extremely hard to close it back.

  • One of the things that, sometimes, really works for us in the middle of an episode is a well-timed offer for (or request for!) a hug and a kiss. Should he say no (or, more likely, “NO!!!”), I tell him to let me know when he’s ready for one — and he does, usually within a minute or two.

    This gives us a way to emotionally and physically reconnect, and it’s a distraction/diversion of sorts. It doesn’t always work, especially when I get emotionally activated (aka violating rule 1), but it does a surprising amount of the time.

    And thank you. We’ve been struggling a lot with the intensity of the Boychick recently. If nothing else, it’s nice to know it’s not just us…

  • I love this, because many of these tips apply to a lot of adults. I, for instance, am seriously susceptible to #4. The farther I get from my last meal, the closer I am to irrational rage. 🙂

  • Jolee Burger

    Thanks for those suggestions and reminders. My youngest, age 3, is my fiery child. I have found something else that sometimes works. When in a situation and he melts down and goes berserk, I try to guess what might be the problem, and I take him aside. In the middle of his screaming and kicking, if I say “You are upset you didn’t get your turn?” it sometimes works. I try to hear him and repeat what he is telling me, and when he feels heard, he is able to let that go and move on. (SOMETIMES. Others, not so much!)

  • Virginia

    Remembering, remembering…. another thing that sometimes helped to gain her attention was to ask her to “look at my face” when I needed her attention. Otherwise, there were just so many other things that were SO interesting…

    Yes, for meltdowns – making sure she felt “heard”. We had many MANY conversations about the way things made her feel, the way she thought others might feel in different situations, etc.

    Kurcinka’s “Raising Your Spirited Child” also had lots of great suggestions and guidance. It’s still available through Amazon.

  • Great tips! I’ve got one mellow one and one we call the “beast”. She is beautiful and smart in every way, but she demands so much compared to her bro. I think it really boils down to attention. She needs more. I am trying to do more projects with her and share my knowledge. I have taught her to spin wool and quilt recently. She needs to be busy; when idle, that’s when trouble arises. It’s exhausting.

  • And one more thing…I find it so interesting that my children’s births reflect their temperament. I wonder if that is true for others. My spirited child was a 19-hour labor, and she stayed crowned forever! My easy-going boy was six hours and shot out like a freight train.

  • Kimberly

    I have four (living) children.
    1. girl, 23 hour labor, verrrry easy going.(19yrs)
    2. girl, 37 hour labor + c-section, not defiant but very emotional, (16 yrs)
    3. boy, 46 hour labor, my dream child, (14 yrs)
    4. girl, (planned c-section)suppppper spirited, very challenging little girl (3 yrs).

    she is the only child living at home as the others live with their prospective mothers and fathers on both sides a year at a time.

  • Thanks for these tips – it’s not always easy to know what to do when a child, especially your own, lashes out at you. These are some great tactics to try at home!

  • Brings back memories. We had a child that never seemed to quit – she was on the go constantly. Later when she grew up she commented that she knew that we were always “there” and that was a great comfort. Hmmm, we wondered a lot if we really had a handle on it, but it seems that being available is a big factor.

  • This is some stupid ass blogging.

    • Derek Markham

      I don’t believe that I ever do any ass blogging, Sir Richard Troll. So sorry to disappoint you. But I hope you feel fulfilled now that you’ve left a stupid ass comment.

    • Why even make a comment like this? Do you have a spirited child? Have you read the book? If these tips don’t apply to you, don’t read them & move along!

  • Caroline

    My daughter is a sweetheart, very generous and intelligent, with a very good sense of humour. Everybody loves her,she is known as being patient and cooperative, etc. However she seems to keep all the difficult behaviour for us at home. We fight fiercely over details and she keeps records of every event.
    One thing I would add to the list: spend quality time alone with her / him to make sure you know her / him well and you appreciate her good qualities and remember them at the most difficult moments.

  • Searching for suggestions for my spirited 3.5 year old daughter. I’ve tried everything, it feels like. Thanks for this article!

  • Thx so much for such a great post!

    Yes I have a very fiery and spirited 5 y.o. Daughter and I feel like I used to have a good understanding of her needs but have fallen of the track lately.

    The problem isn’t so much at home where I feel I can aide in her temperament but my husband is t as great at it and she’s having some trouble in school.

    I’m feeling like a bit of a failure right now so I am glad to have read this positive take and tips! Thanks!

  • I was the fiery child and no one knew what to do. I grew up thinking I was rejected because something was wrong with me. My siblings seemed to receive better attention and better acceptance than me. People in school steered clear of me knowing at some subliminal level that a relationship with me would be daunting. I have mostly lived isolated and resentful, but the fire never goes away. I found my own way, though, and began to take delight in being independent of others’ opinions and pressures, I sought unusual adventures, avoided “normal” and learned to plan my life as a solitary prize. I was quite the enigma to my parents and looking back, the one thing they did right in their confusion over me was to give me a dog. Seriously. I had a nonjudgemental friend who loved me unconditionally. I had some place to go for comfort and someone to be with. Think about it.

  • Joe-Katt

    Well I just found out that I have a Spirited Child and you have opened my eyes to not only understanding my 4 year old daughter but to understanding myself and my own actions as well. Well done!!


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