One of the most popular posts on this site is Raising a spirited child and feeling like a bad mother. (I wrote it when Caroline was about three and a half and I was so frustrated with her bedtimes.) Many people end up on this blog looking for information on spirited children and make their way to my spirited children page or one of the posts I’ve written on this topic. Every once in awhile I see a search in my StatCounter listing that just breaks my heart. You can tell by the words the person is searching that he/she is really struggling with parenting a spirited child. A few times I’ve wanted to be able to write to him/her or contact him/her to offer encouragement, but there is no way for me to do that unless he/she leaves a comment.
Today I received an email from someone and it made me realize I need to do an update on the content of that post from two and a half years ago. The email said:
I just came across the above post from 2010 and as I read it, I started thinking, :Did I write this?” I could have – word for word. I am an introverted mother of a spirited toddler who will be up until 9:30 -10 PM. even with a 7:30 start time on her bedtime routine, every night. No matter how patient I try to be during the day, at night I have none after the third request for a hug and kiss or to put her sheet back on. Please tell me it gets easier!
Yes, it does get easier in many ways. (And in a few ways it hasn’t.) But here we go!
I’m going to share what I’ve learned in parenting Caroline. The following may or may not work for other parents and their spirited children. But I can honestly say that I’ve been there done that in a way that a lot of other parents of non-spirited children haven’t. I’ve survived infanthood, toddlerhood, the preschool years and kindergarten with a spirited child. And not only have I survived, I’ve gotten to the point where I enjoy my spirited child. She’s a whirlwind of joy and enthusiasm. She is a great little girl who is kind, helpful, thoughtful, compassionate, creative, imaginative… so many wonderful things. But it took me awhile to get to the point where I really enjoyed her and not just looked for ways to cope with her spiritedness. Here’s what I’ve learned. See what you can glean to use in your own home and ignore anything that doesn’t make sense for your particular child.
The biggest thing I have learned is that you have to fill the tank completely before bedtime. When a spirited child’s tank is full, she is more apt to go quietly to bed. And by filling the tank I mean emotionally she feels full, verbally she’s gotten it all out, creatively she’s fully expressed herself, and physically she has had enough action during the day. This might sound obvious, but for an introverted parent it can be so hard to make sure a spirited child has a full tank in every way. It takes so much out of us to interact sufficiently with a spirited child. But I do think this is the biggest thing. When Caroline has gotten lots of attention, activity, and play she generally goes to bed quite well now.
Re: bedtimes. Caroline is on the very short end of the spectrum when it comes to sleep needs. She only needs about ten hours. So she’s up most nights until around 10 and she’s awake between 7 and 8. There’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve just had to learn to adjust our expectations in the evenings. I now go to bed later and get up later than I would prefer. I don’t get up before her even though I wish I could. But I need my sleep in order to function well. As she gets older and more independent, this will probably change. But for now this is what we’ve learned we have to do.
Related to this is my need for a humorous, vegetative break each night. Every night I watch something funny before I go to bed. Cosby, Home Improvement, whatever. No drama and nothing serious. I have a snack and veg with something that makes me laugh. It really does make a difference in how I feel and it allows me to unwind in a way that reading or heavy content DVDs don’t.
Spirited children are not good self soothers. I’ve read this in numerous places and believe it to be true. They have a very hard time turning off their minds because they are so full of ideas and questions. We always had to rock Caroline to sleep when she was little. I think we rocked her to sleep until she was three (?). Many nights she still needs help falling asleep. Either she wants David to rub her back or I sing Christmas carols to her (year round!). Eventually this will end, but we just got to the point where we accepted this is what she needs from us and we do it with a good attitude (most nights). Even then we will think she must be asleep or almost there and her eyes will pop open and she’ll ask a string of questions about something or tell us a story she’s made up. We’ve learned to just let her talk at that point rather than trying to shush her and tell her to go to sleep. She has to get it out or she can’t sleep. Once she tells us whatever it is or we answer her questions, she goes right to sleep.
Re: the not knowing if you are going to get a Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde in the morning… That definitely changed. I think she outgrew that around the time she was a preschooler. I was very glad for that!
Re: the length of time for her to go to sleep… We did shorten up the routine. When it became obvious to us that she was never going to go to sleep before ten no matter what, we just adjusted things.
The bottom line is that you really cannot change them and their bedtime needs. I know that probably isn’t what parents of spirited children want to hear, but I believe with all my heart it is the truth. They have their own unique set of bedtime issues and it isn’t something you can “train” out of them. Somehow parents have to find a way to deal with the neverending bedtime routine and needs. Believe me when I say we tried every trick in the book, every bit of advice we could find and nothing works. (Well, we didn’t try everything. We do not spank or threaten her. That’s not an option. Period.)
I hope this is helpful. If any parents are reading this, feel free to leave comments or questions! There are a few other parents of spirited children (some grown) who read and comment here as well. You are not alone! There are other parents who understand.
The photo is of Caroline at age three and a half, around the time of my original post. She’s with Pooh and the washing machine she and Daddy made out of Tinker Toys.