High Energy Preschoolers

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Pre-School for 4yo ''spirited child''

July 2012

Our four-year-old son is what you call a ''spirited child'' - intense emotions, high energy, low frustration tolerance (leading to hitting, spitting etc), and pretty smart. The preschool recommended to send him to a (private) school with a low student-teacher ratio, where teachers are willing to work with more difficult kids that need to be challenged intellectually. We are in the Berkeley Central school district. I'd be grateful for any recommendations (nothing recent in the files). Mama of a fiery kid

Sorry, I don't have a school recommendation for you. But I wanted to reach out because you described our son, and I wanted to share what worked for us. Our private preschool in Oakland worked with us for our ''spirited'' child, they did ask that we hire a ''shadow'' to work with him to help redirect his behaviors, though. It was a costly year but worth it. We also started seeing an occupational therapist. Having a shadow and the OT, helped us figure out how to help our little man. If you haven't had your son evaluated by an OT, I strongly suggest it - just a few little things have made life for everyone better. I don't know if BUSD does Individualized Education Programs (IEP) for preschool (in OUSD it starts at 3); if so, they should be able to help with OT and shadows. We work with Sirena Masket (http://sirenamasketcraniosacral.com/about-me) Good luck! Another mama of another fiery kid

Need help with 4 y.o. spirited child!

June 2006

We need help for my 4 y.o. son who is very energetic, impulsive, moody, prone to tantrums, has a short attention span and is a poor listener. He also does not look people in the eye very often. Lately he also seems to be very angry with the things he says i.e. ''I don't like my Mommy'' ''I wish I had another Mommy.'' We are absolutely exhausted having to deal with his behavior. It seems like we are always reprimanding him and we're so afraid of breaking his spirit with our constant nagging. He is a wonderful, bright child with a big heart who is full of life. We are extremely committed to helping our son, but his behavior is so tiring.

We've had his hearing checked and it is normal. Although we suspect he may have mild ADD, we're not entirely convinced because he does focus on many things like sitting in circle time at school, reading, coloring, working on the computer, etc.

Has anyone had this experience with their child? What was the outcome? Did you originally suspect ADD, but have it turn out to be something else? Are there any therapists that you can recommend? We're just not sure where to turn for help. Any advice is greatly appreciated. -Anon

Your 4-y.o. sounds very similar to my 4.5 y.o.--I hear you; it is just exhausting! We are exploring therapy with an Occupational Therapist, for Sensory Integration Dysfunction, although I can't tell you for sure if it ''works'' because we just started. The Sensory Integration framework seemed to fit our son more than ADHD, although that's still a possible diagnosis. I got my info on Sensory Integation (and recommended therapists) from this website; the books to read are The Out of Sync Child and The Sensory Sensitive Child. We are seeing O.T. Kristine Hubner-Levin in Orinda; it is not covered by insurance and is not cheap, but we are desperate for some help. I will be eager to read the other replies you receive. Oh, and as for the problem of always reprimanding your child, I know it's hard when there is so much *to* reprimand about! But my husband and I took a parenting class thru Kaiser last year, and they did emphasize that these kids especially need to know you love them and appreciate their good moments/qualities, so find whatever small things you can to praise: ''Wow, you've been sitting at the table so well these past few minutes!'' ''I like the way you've been playing with your brother without screaming!'' Good luck Sympathetic Mom

Although my daugher was younger, I had a very similar situation and was at my wits end also. I got a tremendous amount of help from a woman named Patty Wipfler, Founding Director, Parents Leadership Institute in Palo Alto, CA. She does classes at Habitot sometimes and she will also do consultations by telephone. Her approach is very different from anything else that I had heard but it works great and I can see a huge difference in my daughter.

Patty\x92s approach is called Stay listening and includes at least 20 minutes of Special time a day. There are also a couple videos that she did at Bananas that you can rent out.

Patty's Contact information: Parents Leadership Institute http://www.parentleaders.org ph:(650) 322-LEAD (5323)


First of all, I'm sorry to say that I don't have any advice for you, since we are dealing with the same thing with our child (who is now 6 years old). I feel I could have written your post! We have dealt with the same things you describe. It has gotten somewhat better as he has gotten older, but not entirely. I wish I had come out the other side and had some great help for you, but I haven't! I just wanted you to know that you are not alone and that I applaud your efforts to find some help for him NOW (and you - it is SO exhausting) - we feel like we've waited too long to do something - we kept thinking ''he'll grow out of it.'' I eagerly await the advice you receive and wish you the very best Also exhausted

I got some useful advice when I sought help from a therapist regarding my daughter's high level of activity, oppositional behavior, difficulty with transitions, etc.. She recommended I speak with her teacher to see if her behavior differed when at school vs. at home. Well I got quite the surprise when the teacher gave us the unsolicited suggestion to have her evaluated for ADHD. It took about a year to finally take her for an eval with a behavioral pediatrician. (From the reading I'd done I was already fairly certain she had ADHD, but wanted a formal eval if she needed any special services at school.So far, she hasn't. ) She was diagnosed with ADHD and I have used a lot of techniques from the book, From Chaos to Calm Effective Parenting of Challenging Children with ADHD and Other Behavioral Problems. My understanding and experience at this point is that parenting will continue to be extremely challenging.I don't think there is one perfect book, approach, technique or therapy that will turn everything around. We tried using meds for a few days, but did not give them a fair trial. We should probably consider another trial of medication because, to be quite honest, it is difficult to enjoy spending time with her. Like your son she is moody, so you never know what you're going to get. What makes her happy one day is the source of discontent the next. She is so oppositional, so uneager-to-please that I have become increasing short-tempered with her as I find her behavior intolerable. My husband and I are great at giving her praise when she is cooperative, so it's not like she only gets negative attention. What I'm wondering is how other parents cope? I'm also wondering about your son's social skills. It wasn't until my daughter was in the 2nd grade that the playdate and birthday invites dropped off dramatically. She thinks being goofy is a real crowd pleaser and doesn't notice when kids start rolling their eyes and think she's weird.

I guess this was a bit of advice, and a lot of catharsis. I do hope more parents of ADHD kids will chime in. Hang in there anonymous

We have a very challenging 4+ year old as well, and boy can it be stressful. We had more behavioral type problems--temper tantrums, defiance--than attention deficit problems, but generally similar situation. We eventually had him evaluated by a behavioral pediatrician affiliated with Children's Hospital, to be sure that we weren't missing something like ADD/ADHD or a sensory type issue, as very often these problems can result in lots of behavior issues.

Once we were told that he showed no obvious development issues, we decided to focus on making his life very predictable which helped a lot. We also consider the book 'raising your spirited child' to be something of our bible--it's been a huge help in understanding temperment and trying to work with his innate characteristics to help him be more successful. (And us to be more successful parents as well!) We now are very careful not to overschedule him, to make sure he has some time to himself, to minimize trips to unknown or child unfriendly situations, and to be understanding of temperment issues that might make some situations(parties, visiting relatives, kid events) difficult.

We also tried to orchestrate 'successes' for both our child and for us as parents. By this I mean things like visits to the park or zoo at a time that is good for him, playdates with kids he really did well with, short trips to the store, anything that we could all come away from feeling successful.

The last thing I would mention, is that with a spirited kid it is really important to protect the kid and yourselves from well intentioned people who may not be supportive of a kid having a very limited schedule. People thought it was lame that we wouldn't go to restaurants and wouldn't travel with our guy for about 6 months. But the fact was, those events were very likely to be unsuccessful which was bad for our kid and bad for us as parents. I really believe that arranging our lives so that we could have more successes and fewer ''failures'' with our kid was critical to all of our health and happiness anonymous

Another perspective ... when I bought ''Your Explosive Child,'' and it didn't help, I knew that there was something more than ''spirit'' going on with my daughter. She is twelve now and taking medication, but when she was a young child unable to express herself, we had NO CLUE that she had obsessive- compulsive disorder. She had violent tantrums which would not respond to anything; she was hyper-senstive to sound and textures; she barely slept (nor did I!) Our first go-around with diagnostics when she was five was a disaster - we knew what behaviors were aberrant, but the therapist wanted to find out what was ''wrong'' with our homelife. Finally, when she was eight, we had her diagnosed correctly with OCD. OCD is a horror to live with - we never took her out to eat, never interacted with more than a couple of families with young kids, didn't take her on special outings, etc., all because of the potential of breakdowns. It's an ostracizing disorder, but not easy to pinpoint when child is still very young. So ... not to frighten anyone, but a ''spirited child'' isn't always ADHD, and you really have to do a lot of learning if you want to rule out other types of disorders. (By the way, medication can help!) Good luck Dis-spirited mom!

''Spirited'' Doesn't even begin to describe 3-year-old!

November 2005

I am in desperate need of advice. I have a very difficult 3YO (in addition to my 1YO). Things have gotten so bad with my eldest. I don't know whether I should take her to get evaluated for some physical, mental or emotional problem or whether I am the problem. I need some perspective. My daughter is tremendously bright, or at least she used to be. Since her sister was born she has had serious problems. She is hitting people and has ''forgotten'' how to use the potty. She is constantly screaming and yelling. She always claims to be getting injured even when nothing happens. She is scared of EVERYTHING and says she enjoys making people sad. She can't seem to listen and follow directions anymore. My husband and I both feel like an alien has abducted our daughter and replaced her with a monster. She was always willful and focused, but never mean and insane like now. I can't even begin to tell you how horrible her behaviour is. If you tell her what she's done wrong she immediately does it again and laughs at you. I've tried everything to get this to stop. I've tried no reaction and big reactions. I've tried charts and rewards and time outs and deprivation of favorite toys or treats. I've tried coddling and being tough. Nothing seems to change any of it. It is just getting worse and worse as time goes on. What do I do? We were doing better and then all of a sudden - BAM it is so much worse again. Her sister is so jealous too and between the 2 of them, it is just screaming and crying all day. I really can't take another day of it. Any ideas? Desperate Mom

Hi there, so sorry for your dillema. Although I can't comment on you daughter's behavior, I would like to tell you that we had some similar concerns with my son when he was around the same age. We didn't feel like he needed a real evaluation, but we just wanted someone, a professional maybe, to weigh in on some of our concerns and how to deal with them. We had read all the books, and found that a really frustrating experience because books tend to assume that all children are alike, and we wanted some advice that took our son's temperment into consideration. A friend recommended a local child psychologist who we went to for one session. She didn't even meet our son, but we described him and the issue in general, and she was able to identify things that may be the problem and how to deal with them. We found that really helpful. If it hadn't been helpful, she was also available to observe our son at preschool, but her intial advice was right on and we didn't have to go that route. Her name is Mary Krentz, Phd. Her office is in Oakland and her phone number is 510 652-2629. anon

Hi -- I'll be interested in hearing the advice from others, as I am going through a rough time with my 3 year old right now as well.

We've been following the advice from two books: ''Positive Discipline'' and ''How to talk to kids so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk.''

We're finding that punishment like taking away toys, favorite items and privileges isn't working. What is working best is taking our child to her room and locking the children's gate and then going to the kitchen. It sounds like your daughter might like the extra attention from her tantrums (especially since she is sharing the house with a new sibling.) Perhaps you'll get good results if you move her from you whenever she is acting up (and then you can play with the other child). I hear that kids with new siblings often have severe behavior changes while they adjust.

When we take our daughter to her room, we tell her that she needs to be by herself until she can calm down and be nice. We don't allow hitting or being mean and she can come be with us when she is ready to be nice. Keep the words short and remind her that you always love her.

We're trying to set up firm limits too! Our child really needs to make decisions and be in charge so we give her a few options... but if she doesn't act on one of the options in a reasonable amount of time, then we pick her up and take her to her room (alone) until she is ready to cooperate. We're also letting her help decide the options and we give her as much control as we can unless her safety is at stake. We don't yell or talk down to her. We do all we can to stay calm and respectful to her... but we're trying real hard to make sure she knows the rules and we make sure to be extremely firm and follow through with discipline. It's hard when we go places, and honestly I'm trying to stay home as much as possible right now while we work on establishing order again. We talk about behavior before we leave the house, and she knows that we'll leave wherever we are immediately if she has a tantrum and we talk about not being able to do fun things if she can't behave.

We're also making sure to avoid sugar and we are giving her lots of snacks to eat. I notice that a lot of the tantrums occur if she hasn't eaten in the past hour.

Can't wait to get more advice from others! Good Luck!

We were in a similar situation with our son when he was 3 yrs old. I thought it was his pre-school, which allowed him to run wild, but then with a little perspective I realized that it was a phase. And as hard as it was, it too has passed. We had such difficult behavior problems that when he would scream and throw hair raising tantrums I had to lock him in the house and sit with my 3 month old baby outside the front door b/c I thought he would damage my youngest son's ears!

Use time outs if you can. My son would continue to act out during his time outs. My rule was and still is: if you continue to scream you get an extra minute, if you throw toys you get an extra minute for every toy thrown. I use my oven timer for time outs and my kids can here the ''beeps'' for every minute I add! Then the privaleges were taken away: videos, play dates, etc.

So hang in there. Be tough, and know that it just a rough phase. Try not to do things you might regret (i.e. spank out of anger etc.) and stay CALM. My son was returned by aliens and now is a good humored, sensitive, better behaved and easy going kid now. Anon

On a friend's recommendation I'm reading How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk. I'm reading as it instructs - one chapter and then practice for a week or more before moving on. I saw a change in my almost 3YO daughter's behaviour and our interactions after trying the first ''lesson''. Doesn't prevent all disagreements, but it's teaching me a new way to communicate and making a noticable difference. anon

Sounds like your daughter has some strong feelings about being a big sister and is trying really hard to express it in her own special way. I would recommend a very good book by Aletha Solter called ''Helping Young Children Flourish.'' It provides a different approach to looking at what we traditionally see as ''misbehavior'' and gives some great ideas for addressing it in a supportive and positive way. I know it's hard to take, but if you can remember that your daughter is just trying to communicate something challenging with you, it might be helpful to all of you. Remember that she's only 3 years old, with a limited understanding of how the world works and how to try and be heard and comforted. Take a look at this book and you can also check out her website at www.awareparenting.com All the best to you all

Parenting a spirited child

May 1998

A spirited child is a child who, for whatever reason, may be difficult or challenging to deal with in a typical way. Children may experience tantrumming, explosive anger, temperment problems, or many other symptoms.

I strongly recommend a book by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Raising Your Spirited Child. If your child is spirited, which seems likely, parenting is quite different than it would be if he isn't. This book covers it pretty well and is very readable. I'm reading parts of it over again. My daughter is gradually getting easier to be with and seems happier, thanks to some counseling, discussions with preschool staff, and this book. I know the demands will change as she grows, but really understanding the fundamentals about this temperament is our key. It's not easy, but spirited children can be so creative and joyful, I'm sure it's more than worth all the effort. nancy

Spirited kids, by definition, tend to be very intense about their emotions, very high-energy, extremely assertive and ... in circumstances when a child of a different temperment might just go along and accept a rebuke ... for example, a mild spanking, which would cause many kids to just stop ... a spirited kid will often start hitting back. (So effectively disciplining such a child, without starting a huge spiraling effect, takes special strategies.) There are other ways in which spirited kid also typically fight back. My almost three-year-old daughter, for example, has been evaluated as spirited. She is one of the smallest in her class, but if another child tries to take something away from her, she will hang onto the toy and as a result has been bitten, pushed down and hit many times by various two-year-old boys. Nothing phases her, she continues to be assertive and in fact is great friends with these boys. It's just that many children would back down in certain situations and she just won't, no matter what the outcome. She does the same thing with me at home. So ... one thing is ... if this boy is at home all the time, mom may be experiencing ALL the assertive, intense, moody behaviour that (for example) my daughter distributes freely between her teachers, peers, and me. (Alicia can also be generous, kind and utterly charming. But she is, her teachers say, challenging in her behaviours.)

There are specific, learnable strategies for setting limits with, and disciplining, a spirited child so that the limits are effective and not the beginning of an all out battle. I'd recommend calling Bananas and asking when their next class is (they co-sponsor ... with Kaiser ... a class for parents taught by a child psychologist.) The psychologist will call the parent and interview the parent over the phone, as a screening process ... to make sure this really is the appropriate class and the parent isn't wasting their time and money. I took the class and recommend it highly.

In all fairness, I should say I've also seen her grab stuff from and push other kids ... and she bites me sometimes (although not other kids ... just Mommy. how special) The point is not whether or not she is being the agressor or the victim, good" or bad ... two year olds don't even think in those terms, and she continues to be close friends with those she has pushed as well as those she hasn't, and they all share cupcakes and hugs in their mellow moments. The POINT is that children with stubborn, highly emotional, determined tempermanets are that way INHERENTLY and they don't really change ... one has to come up with workable strategies for a kid of that nature, which is no mean feat. MC