A spirited child may be also called a challenging child, high needs child, or difficult child. "Spirited child" is often more politically correct, especially over the term “difficult,” which has negative connotations. This child is truly a challenge to parents, because even parents with older children may find themselves stumped by their child's behavior and reactions. Frequently, one can see a young child, even an infant, who resists efforts and comforting, and cries often, even after all needs have been addressed and the infant is being held.
There are several foundational books on raising a high needs child. These include: Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Living with the Alert Active Child by Linda S. Budd, The Difficult Child by Dr. Stanley Turecki, and Parenting the Fussy Baby and the High Needs Child by Martha Sears and Dr. William Sears. Each book defines the high needs child in a slightly different manner, and offers different suggestions for coping with and helping this child develop his or her full potential. Some parents use a combination of these four books and others when they recognize their child as spirited.
Some characteristics that identify the spirited child are the following:
- Intensity — meaning greater drama, easier cry response, making more demands on parents.
- Persistence — gets committed to and stays with ideas, may argue points with parents long after an issue is settled.
- High Energy Level — also sometimes labeled hyperactive, but many who write on this disorder do not want the term hyperactivity confused with the disorder.
- Sensitive — may be overly sensitive to sounds, slight discomfort, pictures, and stimuli of all sorts.
- Difficult Adaptability — may react with greater emotion to changes like attending school, or moving to a new house.
- Moody — may be more prone to get cranky, but may also be susceptible to and more perceptive of the moods of others.
More characteristics identify the spirited child, but not all of these children exhibit all characteristics. Some of the key aspects outlined by the Sears family also apply specifically to infants, who may be uneager to cuddle or be close to people, cry more frequently, wake more frequently, be unsatisfied with anything you try, and may have challenges soothing themselves. In all cases, the authors of these books suggest that being aware one has a high needs child may prove a relief to parents.
Some parents with a high needs child may find themselves drained, worried about the child’s future, insecure in their own parenting abilities and frustrated with or angry at the child. It can be fairly easy to either blame one’s self or the spirited child or baby for having such extensive needs and making significant demands on one’s time. To this end, many mid-size towns and large cities have support groups specifically geared toward parenting the child. There are also many Internet resources on the subject, and naturally, the books mentioned above.
There is also some question regarding whether the high needs child is actually a child with attention deficit disorder (ADD). In most cases, especially in very young children, there is no way to determine this, and the matter is of some debate. Further, it is quite unusual to medicate an infant for ADD or ADHD. Even those who support using stimulants to treat ADHD generally don’t recommend these to children younger than five years old.
Instead, the parent with the challenging child learns most by getting to know the child. Strategies in books or derived from therapy and support groups may be tried, and some will undoubtedly work for the individual child. Additionally, one learns to cope with a higher degree of expressed dissatisfaction on the part of the child without blaming oneself or parental abilities.
Most experts also point to the many upsides of raising a challenging child. They may be highly artistic, very intelligent, intensely logical, and goal-oriented. Their ability to express themselves, loud and often, may ultimately translate in adulthood to being in touch with one’s own emotions. Further, this child can be greatly compassionate, especially as he or she gains maturity, making them valuable and active members of their community.