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Reality Check: Raising a Difficult Toddler

Q. I'm the mother of a difficult 2 ½ year-old boy. He is healthy, bright, and, when he's not throwing an intense tantrum, very happy. But life with him is a roller-coaster ride. The littlest thing can send him into a rage. Any advice?

A. I could have written this question myself a few years ago. From 18 months to age 5, Madeline was known in our household as She Who Must Be Obeyed. At 6, she has grown into herself and is more reasonable, but she remains the emotionally intense handful that we now know she always will be. Our current motto is, It Takes a Village to Raise Madeline.

But there is nothing funny about the mix of worry, anger, guilt, and frustration you feel as the parent of a difficult child. My husband and I tried being strict and being lenient. We even tried spanking (which we found to be the least helpful strategy). Nothing worked, until my mother-in-law gave me the book Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Despite the jargony title, the advice is reality-based, written by a parenting expert/mother who has lived through the scenes we know too well: explosions over any change in plans (positive or negative); histrionics about toast cut into triangles instead of squares; meltdowns caused by a scratchy shirt label or a loud coffee grinder.

"You must realize that he is not doing it to you," says Kurcinka. "He is not out to get you -- he was born with his temperament. And you need to start seeing his strengths because this is who has come to live with you." On the positive side, "spirited" children seem to be more persistent, assertive, charismatic, perceptive, tenderhearted, and analytical than most even-tempered people simply because they are more of everything. I remember one preschool teacher saying that Madeline had excellent character traits for an adult -- it's just that they were hard to take in a 3-year-old.

If step one is to accept that, for better and worse, this is just your son's personality, steps two and three are to notice which situations set him off (sensory overload, transitions, not being asked what he wants to do) and teach him how to manage his own intensity (by getting lots of exercise, having quiet book times, being given choices). As I began to make these small changes, Madeline noticed and responded with little signs of improvement. Your child knows whether you like him or not (it goes without saying that you love him, but liking is different), and if you don't like him he'll live down instead of up to expectations.

Dealing with an intense child is difficult and time-consuming, but it will pay off in the long run (this is the hope we hang on to). It wasn't until Madeline was 4 that I finally decided I was up to the challenge of being the mother of this spirited child. I figure that if she ends up having an inaugural ball, I want to make sure I'll be invited.
Contributing editor Trisha Thompson, a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine, writes often on health and family.