A few years ago, a friend was struggling with how to peacefully parent her wild child. I commented on her post that 'strong-willed children become adults who change the world… as long as we can hang on for the ride and resist the temptation to 'tame'the spirit out of them.' I didn’t say it because we had that nailed in our home, and its by no means a concept unique to me. I offered it to encourage her to keep going on her path of gentle parenting and bring her a little hope that the hard days were worth the struggle. A year later it came up in her memories and she asked if I could make it a meme for her to share with others. It has since taken on a life of its own with over 10 million shares.
When I was pregnant with our first baby I felt lucky to be coming into the whole motherhood thing with some knowledge and experience under my belt. I had been a doula for 7 years at that point, and had both professional and personal experience working with every age range of child/youth from newborn to young adult including those who were high risk or had special needs. I had a sense of what things were important to me. I had an idea of what parenting techniques & beliefs I gravitated towards. I knew that parenting was going to turn me upside down and inside out but that was okay because I had walked with other women and families through that process many times.
When we were knee-deep in the newborn period and infancy it all felt pretty normal (or at least I thought it was! ). There were the usual challenges of new motherhood and it was by no means “easy”, but I reminded myself often that parenting was a 24hr gig and that helped me cope. lol Levi needed his dad or I *ALL*THE*TIME* but that was okay because we believed in gentle attachment parenting. We wore him and bounced him and rocked him and slept with him for the majority of every day. In retrospect Levi was a classic “high needs baby", but at the time I chalked it up to “normal newborn” and carried on.
Somewhere around 18 months though those high-needs characteristics became more…and more… and more challenging. I couldn’t go anywhere without physically wrestling him into his carseat while he screamed and continued screaming until I gave up and went home or we arrived at our destination. He breastfed all night long and every couple hours during the day. He was intense and sensitive and demanding and persistent. He pushed every button I had.
I reviewed my parenting books. I searched my favorite peaceful parenting websites. I talked with trusted family and friends. Advice ranged from “Just stop breastfeeding him so he stops manipulating you” (And give up the best comfort tool I’ve got?! No Way! Besides -- a toddler asking to breastfeed for nourishment of body & soul is NOT manipulation) through to “A good spanking will show him who’s boss” (We don’t hit out our kids. It is a violation of their fundamental human rights). There were even some mornings when I dropped Levi off to my mother-in-law with tears of frustration streaming down my face. No hugs. No I love you’s. Just walking away for a few hours while I was at work, knowing he was with someone who loved him, because I didn’t have another ounce of energy left in me to give at that moment and the best gift I could give him in those moments was to allow him to by loved by Grandma. Those were hard days for all of us.
I came up empty-handed in my general ‘how to parent’ searching and my concern was growing so I started exploring if maybe my wee boy had something like AD(H)D or even a more serious disorder as his anger could be positively explosive, but those searches didn’t say “This is Levi” either. Then I stumbled upon an article entitled "7 Warning Signs Your Child May Be Spirited" and a lightbulb went off. My boy was ok! He was Spirited. Strong-willed. Difficult. High-needs. It was like the heavens opened and I saw my sweet baby in a new light. Every.single.description of a spirited child had elements of Levi.
I immediately started learning more about how to effectively parent a spirited child. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka was my 'Levi bible' for a little while. Even so, there were pieces of advice that I knew would never work. Lol. Always eager to keep learning I read The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel which was another gamechanger for our family. Things improved. I understood my boy in a new way yet again. We felt as though we were doing our best to parent in a way that honoured and respected who Levi was while providing him with the boundaries he needed to flourish as he grew.
When Levi was 4, he watched his little brother Lutka be born safely and gently at home. We were very intentional in our time with Levi and did our best to help him not feel displaced by the new arrival. Over the next 6 months though Levi's fuse became shorter, his demands more frequent, his anger hotter. He was telling us he was scared and he wouldn’t be in any room alone. He wouldn’t let us hug him or kiss him, or hold him when upset. He lashed out at the drop of a hat. It felt as though Levi was in charge of the house and we were all on eggshells constantly.
We needed professional help and so connected with a very well-respected therapist. They suggested Levi's struggles were caused by him feeling like he had too much power in the house so we needed to establish again that Mommy & Daddy were in charge and were strong enough to keep him safe. Practically speaking, we were instructed to set firm no-wiggle boundaries about anything he pushed back on, and when he was in a fury we needed to physically restrain him until he calmed in our arms. Thankfully I had NonViolent Crisis Intervention training and Levi hadn’t yet learned about momentum as we held him while he screamed, kicked, hit, and bit his way through the next month. Most days involved each of us being in tears at some point. I told myself it made sense that things would be harder before they got easier so we persevered .... until I said Enough was enough. Knowing what we know now, showing him who was boss was pretty much the exact opposite of what he needed. It was traumatic for both of us and is one of my few legitimate parenting regrets even though I know the therapist meant well.
I felt though like there was still a piece missing and so I kept digging. I read Connected Parenting by Jennifer Kolari, and The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. Then a whole slew of books on Sensory Processing Disorder, as well as Kids Beyond Limits by Anat Baniel. Eventually with a friend's gentle prodding we explored the Autism Spectrum and after reading The Complete Guide To Asp*rgers by Tony Attwood on the advice of a specialist, we pursued a medical diagnosis. (the term Asp*rger's is not currently used by most Austistic people and is even believed by some in the Autistic community to be hate speech, but its the name of the book and was still used at the time). We now understand that Levi fits a unique part of the autism spectrum known as Pathological Demand Avoidance. We've experimented with diet changes and probiotics and incorporating yoga and mindfulness into our family routines over the years. We learned a lot about PDA and how parenting a PDA child essentially means throwing everything you thought you knew out the window. lol. We've been forced to really practice what we preach when it comes to respecting who are kids are fully human in a world that treats them as less than, and under their parents. Dietary changes didn't help us, and mindfulness is as much for me as for them, but I am extremely grateful to live in Canada where medical cannabis can be legally prescribed. It has been life changing for us.
Levi is older now, and is still his wild child spirited self. No day is perfect but we feel like we're in a healthier place and on our way to helping Levi become whoever is. Still, as he continues to grow and each day brings challenges, we continue to explore and learn so that he gets what needs and our whole family can thrive.
Sometimes we have white knuckles. Many days we're tired. No day is perfect. But every day we strive to parent in a way that nurtures our kids spirits rather than "tames" or breaks them. Whether your child is neurodivergent in some way, or neurotypical and giving you a run for your money, either way the pressure to conform to "power over" parenting dynamics is strong. Everyone has an opinion about how children should behave and what their day should look like. Everyone has an opinion about my role as a parent and what relationship I should have with my children. The world views children as possessions and as inferior to adults, and that they should submit to us in all things without question simply because of the power we tell ourselves we hold over them.
At the core of our family's parenting beliefs is the idea that our children are people - fully human - fully deserving of dignity and respect and kindness - fully deserving of our genuine apologies when we inevitably mess up. Our absolute respect for WHO our children are is what drives us to support them and love them without condition while simultaneously working to provide safe edges and safety boundaries when necessary so they can flourish. Their spirit is what makes them uniquely themselves. Rather than try to mold them into who we think they should be, we strive to provide the conditions that will allow them to thrive and their spirit grow into its fullness. Because “Strong-willed children become adults who change the world… as long as we can hang on for the ride and resist the temptation to 'tame'the spirit out of them."
Recommended Reading & Resources
The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
Parenting From The Inside Out by Dan Siegel & Mary Hartzell
Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Connected Parenting by Jennifer Kolari
Everyday Blessings by Jon & Myla Kabbat-Zinn
Brain-Based Parenting by Daniel Hughes
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene
The Explosive Child by Ross Greene
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
Gentle Birth Gentle Mothering by Sarah Buckley
Beyond Behaviors by Mona Delahooke
You may also be interested in:
Reading more about how our family understands PDA-Autism
Reading my post "Peaceful Not Permissive: Parenting with Compassion