Skip to main content

What is a "spirited" child?

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 16 November 2021

What defines a child as spirited, challenging, difficult, high-needs, high-maintenance, or any of the plethora of labels often perpetuated by a society that values conformity?

Virtually any child could be labeled as such, depending on the circumstances he found himself in or the clash of temperaments she has with the adults or other children in the room.

Taking each child's...and parent's...temperament into consideration is a cornerstone of Nurturings. Unless we understand our child's unique perspective, it is impossible for us as parents to be able to build a solid, loving, consistent relationship based on trust and empathy with our children.

I had the distinct pleasure of discussing just what makes a child "spirited" with Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, EdD, a parent educator specializing in temperament and best-known for her book, Raising Your Spirited Child. I was struck not only by how absolutely kind and accepting she is, but also by her venerable knowledge on her chosen subject and how it interacts with parenting. She truly is a treasure for parents worldwide in understanding not only their children but themselves.

Q: Referring to a child as "spirited" seems to be such a subjective perception. How do you define spiritedness?

DR. KURCINKA: When you say it is subjective, it truly is. But this whole thing is about parents and children learning to work together, so those subjective perceptions are actually really important.

What's important to understand is, there is a constitutionality of our reactivity. Some people are more sensitive; some are more intense. It's biological. It's like knowing what kind of engine is running your child. A spirited child has a Lamborghini. If you have a diesel engine and you put regular fuel in, it doesn't work so well. Spirited kids need a lot more help calming the arousal system.

On a hard day, parents tend to label their child as a jerk, stubborn, hyper. I ask the parents I work with in my practice to finish this sentence: "(Child's name) is ..." and to pay attention to their arousal. When they use negative labels, such as "jerk," their muscles tense up. Their heart rate goes up. Negative labels change your perception. I help parents learn to reframe traits to a positive perspective. Parents feel better about a child who is creative, athletic, energetic.

That is why perspective is so important: because it changes how we see that child and how we respond to that child.

At the same time, we have to realize that spiritedness is not an excuse for undesirable behavior. Spiritedness is a tool for understanding. He has a lot of energy, so let's channel that energy. She has difficulties with transitioning; this doesn't mean that the parents should have to wait an extra hour or risk the child having a tantrum every time they need to go. This is an opportunity to understand how your child's brain works and how to work with that.


This is Part 1 in a 3-part series with Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, EdD, author of Raising Your Spirited Child. In Part 2, we'll discover how parents are part of the equation. In Part 3, we'll learn what to do when our child's behaviors go beyond spiritedness into a possible behavior disorder.


Child temperament is biological