When my son was 2-years-old, I started to worry that I was a helicopter mom. That I hovered too much — that I couldn’t step back and let him just go. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was faced with the task of parenting a strong-willed child.
I noticed other parents talking and laughing while glancing at their cautious little ones who were ever-so-carefully negotiating each step up to the slide at the playground.
This was a stark contrast to my son, who ran into a playground or any new situation as if he owned it — with pretty much zero wariness or caution. And for me, that called for a more watchful eye and catching him in his practical free-falls.
With time and a little experience, I was able to step back more, give him more space, and let him take more tumbles and falls. So, yes it was partly me. And with time, he became more regulated and even developed some wariness of his own.
Recently, I had dinner with a friend who told me she too worried about being a “helicopter mom” and was also envious of parents who could casually converse at the playground. Her daughter was much like my son, less wary and cautious than other kids.
We both described our kids as intense — as highly-spirited — having a strong will.
By intensity, we meant kids who play harder, go higher, get more physical, are more impulsive, and get their feelings hurt more.
Kids who hug their moms super-tight and tackle-hug their dads, kids who love hard and deep.
A New Kind of Temperament: The Exuberant Child
In developmental psychology, the raw personality that a child is born with is called temperament.
Temperament is a child’s own natural tendency in how reactive and regulated they are.
Over time, temperament is molded by environment and experience, but the basic tendency for how reactive a person is in certain situations stays pretty much the same.
Research has shown many different temperament types, but they have largely been divided into two main categories: inhibited and uninhibited (average) approach.
Most kids show some level of wariness in new situations. They may cautiously explore a new toy or slowly approach a stranger. This is what an “average” approach temperament would look like.
Most of the research has focused on children with an inhibited temperament, those children who are ultra-cautious and tend to back away from or resist new situations. These children may be more likely to be socially anxious.
But recently, developmental psychologists have identified a third type of temperament, the exuberant child.
“The exuberant person, far from simply responding to the environment in which he finds himself, acts vigorously upon it or seeks out new ones.”
– Kay Redfield Jamison, Exuberance: The Passion for Life (p. 99)
The set of traits an exuberant child has can be amazing strengths and serve them well in the future. But, they will need guidance, lots of guidance, from us to get there.
How to Parent Your Strong-Willed Child According to Science: Gain Cooperation while Building Them Up
1. Understand That I Am Built This Way
The first step to understanding your exuberant child is realizing this is their temperament, it is simply how they are built.
Kate Degnan, Ph.D., describes exuberant children as:
- Joyous with even small pursuits and goal attainment
- Actively approaches new things and people
- Explores the world around them and seems to genuinely enjoy this exploration
They are highly positive, social, and ready to embrace new things (1).
I remember when my son was three we had to teach him that he couldn’t just go sit with anyone in a restaurant. He felt no hesitation to go up, say hello, sit down and start talking to a boy his age at another table. That sociability was not something we taught him. It is just how he is built.
The roots of temperament are biological.
In looking at how readily infants approach new situations, researchers have found different brain reactivity in exuberant kids who tend to approach new things optimistically compared to infants who are more inhibited and tend to avoid new things (2).
In fact, the tendency to approach and to be exuberant is associated with activity in the left frontal lobe of the brain, whereas, being inhibited and wary of new situations/people is associated with activity in the right frontal lobe of the brain (1).
Realizing and accepting that you child exuberant because that is part of their personality and because it is how their brain works, will change your expectations and hence how you parent.
2. See My Strengths and My Joy!
We have a tendency to only focus on the stubbornness, intensity, and the willfulness that seems to come along with exuberance, but there are many positive traits about the exuberant child.
These are joyful children! Impulsive yes, but also enthusiastic, entertaining, and joyous!
Many of our expectations and beliefs are held in our labels. We might think of our highly-spirited and exuberant child as demanding, stubborn, defiant, and single-minded. Let’s change those labels.
Instead of ______ let’s call it ______:
Demanding ……Leadership Skills
For more on this, I highly recommend Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Kurcinka, Ed.D (aff link). In her book, she goes through labels and stereotypes (in fact she is credited with coining the phrase the spirited child, which is more positive than “difficult” or “intense”).
The truth is that many of the traits of a highly-spirited child will serve them well in the future. When they are young and self-regulation is not fully developed, these skills will be clumsy, intense, and sometimes very frustrating to parents. But it is exactly during those early childhood years that they will need us most.
Reframing our perspective on their intensity and our expectations will help us be there for them.
3. Teach Me Self-Regulation
Along with this joyous and unwary approach to life comes an impulsive side.
Exuberant children have been found to be more risk for developing more disruptive behavior (2), more risk-taking behaviors in childhood (3), ADHD (4), and more risk-taking behaviors (sex, drugs, alcohol) in young adulthood (5).
This does not paint an optimistic picture. The good news is that researchers have found that the reason behind these potential outcomes is not necessarily exuberance itself, but rather the combination of being exuberant and having poor regulation skills.
If an exuberant child is able to develop good regulation, those regulatory skills will protect against some of these outcomes.
So, the big limitation to focus on here is self-regulation. Being exuberant tends to go hand in hand with having impulsivity and self-regulation issues.
Well, it probably gets back to their temperament. A careful and wary child naturally has more time to think about how they will approach a situation and how they will react. The exuberant child jumps in without thinking.
They need to learn to stop and think.
They need to learn not only how to regulate negative emotions, like frustration, but also how to regulate excitement and positivity.
The GOOD NEWS: While exuberance itself may not change much, regulation can and will.
As parents of exuberant children, we must consciously focus on teaching our children strategies to help them regulate.
Here are my goto strategies for teaching impulse-control in different situations:
4. Be Gentle and Playful!
Research shows that children with exuberance will also develop high self-regulation when their mothers are rated as high in gentle discipline. Gentle discipline, in this case, was trying to get their child to move away from the toys and back on task by using “polite suggestions, hints, and playful comments” (Degnan, 2015).
How we parent matters.
One way to do this is to use games and fun activities to practice regulation. The one thing exuberant children don’t lack in is the willingness to participate and join in. Being playful in your parenting will get you far with any child, but I think it works especially well with the exuberant child.
For example, when you need them to cooperate to get out the door, make it a game. Your exuberant child will literally jump at the opportunity to “put on his frog shoes and jump to the car.”
Harness their playful nature by being playful yourself.
In the posts below I give more specific examples for parenting the exuberant child — ways to work on regulation, books that focus on impulse control, and tips to harness that joy and enthusiasm and turn it into cooperation!