What Happened When My Spirited Child Grew Up

For my first few years as a mother, I figured I had this parenting thing in the bag. My husband and I were quick to pat ourselves on the back for the splendid job we were doing with our perfect child—a compliant, sweet, easygoing, happy boy who seemed to follow to the letter all of the developmental timelines laid out in the parenting books and the pediatrician’s handouts.

What happens when a spirited child becomes a teen

Since parenting came so “easy” for us, we were anxious to add on to our family. Mother Nature had different ideas, however, and Baby Number Two did not arrive until One was 4 years old. By this time, we were old hands at the parenting gig and we were cocky, confident that adding one more perfect child to the mix would be a piece of cake for us.

It did not take long, however, before Son Number Two started to challenge us in ways we were not used to or prepared for. Breastfed since day one, Two flat-out refused to take a bottle, ever, which made it difficult to leave him with a sitter. It didn’t matter if we waited for hours and hours until he should have been good and hungry; he would have starved himself before giving in to accepting anything from a bottle.

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The bottle battle was our first clue that things were not going to be simple with Two, but there were many more. Whereas Son Number One learned to soothe himself to sleep after a few difficult evenings of letting him cry it out, Two could literally cry all night long, growing louder and angrier by the minute, refusing sleep until Mom or Dad rocked him.

When he grew older, we joined a “Mommy and Me” play group. While the other toddlers would sit peacefully in circle time with their mothers acting out Itsy Bitsy Spider with their fingers, Two was off by himself playing with foam blocks or scaling the climber. His lack of interest in joining the crowd concerned me, so I signed him up for nursery school two mornings a week, hoping to “socialize” him.

Although his “lone ranger” behavior continued there, his nursery school teacher embraced his unique personality and didn’t try to force him to do anything he didn’t want to do, which was basically anything the rest of the class was doing. At the last parent-teacher conference of the year, his teacher tearfully begged me to never let anyone break his spirit. She also told me she thought he had a “Montessori personality” when I told her we were considering moving him to a different preschool the following year.

He did switch to a Montessori preschool, and she was correct, the “child-led” philosophy perfectly suited his personality and he excelled there. His teachers nurtured him and tried to reassure me that some day his iron will would serve him well. But at home, I was finding it hard to discipline a kid who, unlike One, wouldn’t stay in timeout when he was being punished; who put up a fight about everything from naps to food to socks to buckling his car seat. The older he got, the more he learned to dig in his heels. Tantrums continued long past the terrible twos. His bedroom walls were starting to look like swiss cheese from the holes he punched in them during his epic “conniptions,” as my cleaning lady liked to call them.

Through it all, Son Number One suffered. This is one of my biggest regrets. We had to focus so much attention on Two, it was too exhausting to worry about One. With their opposing personalities, they learned how to push each others’ buttons and they started to fight— physically, verbally, and constantly. Family time was often stressful, and vacations usually ended in disaster—such as the spring break trip to the indoor water park resort, where we had to drag Two from the premises literally kicking and screaming because he wasn’t ready to leave, all the while sheepishly promising bystanders that we really weren’t kidnappers or child abusers. When we got in the car he refused to keep his seat belt buckled and started looking for objects to throw at us as we drove away. It was dangerous, scary, and absolutely heartbreaking.

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Two was never officially diagnosed with ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), but he probably could have been. When he was in elementary school, he had an ongoing battle with his father. My husband is very energy-conscious, and every morning as the kids were leaving for school he would walk through the house turning off lights. And every morning just before heading out the front door to catch his bus, Two would sneak back up to his room to switch his closet light back on in a blatant, nonsensical act of defiance that never failed to raise my husband’s ire.

During this time, we sought help from doctors and therapists. I read books like Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I invested in The Total Transformation CDs and listened to them over and over again in the car. I tried all sorts of discipline techniques. I cried a lot. I yelled a lot. I worried a lot. I prayed a lot. I even ran away once.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to accept that Two was never going to be the easygoing kid I wished he would be, and I learned to pick my battles. I learned to negotiate like a diplomat. I learned to cherish every good, peaceful, positive moment with him. A friend once gave me a mantra bracelet engraved with the words “Celebrate Small Victories,” and that is what I learned to do. Through it all, I loved this kid with a fierce determination. And sometime during the middle school years, he grew up. I don’t know exactly what clicked, but I think it coincided with my own surrender to full acceptance of every aspect of his personality. The tantrums finally stopped. He became a little bit easier to reason with. He began to shine—a funny, smart, determined, perfectly imperfect teen.

Two is now 17 and a junior in high school. He still stubbornly digs his heels in at times when I wish he wouldn’t, he still marches to his own beat, and, as his Montessori teachers predicted, that strong will now serves him well as a young man. He is immune to peer pressure but has a tight group of friends who accept him as he is. He set a GPA goal at the beginning of high school, and is currently in the top three percent of his class. He spends too much time playing video games, but he also engages in productive extracurricular activities of his choosing. I’m not worried about him anymore.

No matter what he decides to do after graduation next year, I am confident that he is going to find happiness and success as an adult, because he is only going to be willing to live life on HIS terms. This is the happy ending I always hoped he would find, and that is a victory worth celebrating.


Dear Mom of High School Junior

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About Karen Walker

Karen Walker is a freelance writer who has been raising two sons (ages 19 and 23) and a husband for over half of her life. She blogs about first-world problems at Life, In A Nutshell.

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