Parenting Spirited Children: An Interview with Dr. Jane Nelsen

July 31, 2013 at 7:19 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)


Boundaries, Emotions, and Spirited Kids
An interview with Dr. Jane Nelsen on parenting the strong-willed child

After infancy, comes the age of autonomy. It’s a time when a child’s physical activity takes off, language flourishes, and parents hear frequent exclamations of, “Me do it!” During this time, our kids’ personalities blossom, and we start to experience the full range of their spirit. Positive discipline becomes a natural extension of attachment parenting in infancy, as it’s about providing boundaries for behavior while respecting a child’s needs and natural temperament. Just as close contact strengthens the parent-child relationship in infancy, positive discipline preserves that relationship throughout childhood.

However, discipline can also challenge the parent-child relationship, especially when a child is very spirited in nature. When kids are very active or react strongly to disappointment, Positive Discipline tools can be difficult to put into place. Many parents get frustrated with their child’s seeming lack of response to a non-punitive discipline style and are often at a loss as to how to discipline such exuberance.

Dr. Jane Nelsen is the author of Positive Discipline and founder of Positive Discipline Associates. She trains parents, teachers, and caregivers all over the world to use Positive Discipline to strengthen parent-child relationships and to teach children how to become responsible, respectful and self-reliant. I had the opportunity to speak with Jane about her thoughts on responding to strong emotions when it comes to Positive Discipline and spirited kids.

Hi Jane. As you know, children who are described as ‘spirited’ are typically very active, very verbal, highly emotional, or some combination of all three. I’ve often heard from parents of spirited children that using Positive Discipline can be a challenge because their kids’ personalities are naturally so strong-willed. What do you think? Is there a place for Positive Discipline in families of strong-willed, ‘spirited’ children?

I think using Positive Discipline is even more important with spirited children because you need to guide that strong will they have. After all, we don’t want weak-willed children! As children grow out of infancy, they want—they need—to use their power, whether we like it or not. And they’re good at it! If we don’t let them, and guide them to use their power in useful ways, they’ll use it in useless ways. Celebrate that you have a spirited child and then take a lot of opportunity to guide that child into using that strong will in contributing ways.

How do we do that with strong-willed kids?

One of the foundations of Positive Discipline is to be kind and firm at the same time. Many parents know how to be kind…until they get upset. Then they know how to be firm without being kind, and they vacillate between the two; being kind until they can’t stand their kids (who develop an entitlement attitude) and then being firm until they can’t stand themselves (feeling like tyrants).

I think we all know the mistakes made in the name of firmness without kindness: punishment. However, many do not know the mistakes made in the name of kindness without firmness: pleasing, rescuing, over-protecting, pampering (providing all “wants”), micromanaging in the name of love, overdoing choices, making sure children never suffer.

When you say, “never suffer,” what do you mean?

I often say we should allow our kids to suffer. Not make them suffer—we should never do that. But we need to allow them to suffer such that they can have their feelings.

You’re saying when our kids are expressing their unpleasant emotions we shouldn’t console those feelings away?

Right. Parents shouldn’t worry about not being attached if their children ever have to cry. I think it is impossible for any child who is being raised by a parent who is interested in attachment parenting to not be attached. It’s not possible; they’re in tune with meeting their child’s needs.

But being too focused on keeping a child happy can lead a parent to constantly (unintentionally) rescue a child from his feelings. The child then develops the belief of, “I’m not capable of dealing with these feelings.”

They should have their feelings and be allowed to work them through. And when they do—which they will eventually—they will feel a sense of. A sense of, “I am capable.” A sense of, “I am resilient.” A sense of, “I can survive.” All children need that opportunity.

 It seems hard to know when to offer comfort and ease strong feelings and when to entrust kids to work through them on their own.

I think parents get confused between the needs and the wants. There’s a fine line between understanding when it’s appropriate to comfort your child and when to let them work through their feelings on their own and realize their own capabilities for handling them. I just think that’s a grey area for a lot of parents.

So where is that balance? How do we know what is an appropriate response?

A lot of it is education. If you have the knowledge, then you go into your heart and you know. Parents need to understand that children are always making decisions based on their life experiences. They are answering for themselves, “Am I capable? Am I not capable? Can I survive the ups and downs of life, or can I not?”

If parents don’t allow their children to have those experiences of emotional upsets, they rob their children of developing the belief that he or she is capable. What we want to do is give our children experiences that help them develop healthy beliefs and a sense of trust, autonomy and initiative. Children need to develop their disappointment muscles, their capability muscles, and their resiliency muscles. Wise parents allow children to do that.

So it is possible for firmness, kindness, strong will, and attachment to co-exist? No matter how spirited our children are (or their responses to our discipline), we can set boundaries with kindness, let kids have their feelings about them, and still maintain a secure attachment. Right?

Yes. And I think this is what parents of high-spirited kids need to know; that sometimes it’s really hard to be firm without being punitive. And also, it’s easy to be permissive when your kids are strong-willed and you’re worried about maintaining attachment.

You know, I used to be permissive with my kids until I couldn’t stand them. Then I would be controlling and punitive until I couldn’t stand myself. So I’d be pampering and punitive because I didn’t know there was something in between. There’s a balance. A great example is saying, “I love you and the answer is no.” Kind and firm. Then let kids have their feelings.

And parents should still be there, too, “on the sidelines” so-to-speak?

Exactly. Children need to be able to manage their feelings when there’s a loving, supporting advocacy; that’s the benefit of attachment parenting. You’re providing that energy of support, that validation and foundation for allowing children to use what they’re learning.

Kelly Bartlett is an API Leader and a Certified Positive Discipline Educator. She is the author of Encouraging Words for Kids and a freelance writer with a focus on child development, family relationships and discipline. You can find more of her work at



  1. Vicki dolan said,

    Thank you Kelly and Jane!! A wonderful article about a question I am asked frequently!!

  2. Janet Dubac said,

    Thank you so much for sharing this! There’s a lot of questions that I have and I finally found answers here. Thank you for a brilliant post!

  3. Parenting a Spirited Child said,

    […] Raising a child whose actions and reactions most seem out of control can bring quite a load to parents. With the right understanding of what goes inside the minds of this group of children, it can be possible to defuse daily struggles and lessen the stress. Here’s a wonderful piece of article about parenting a spirited child that I found to be very enlightening: “Parenting Spirited Children: An Interview with Dr. Jane Nelsen.” […]

  4. Shelly B said,

    I have a VERY spirited almost three year old. He’s delicious 75% of the time (lots of amazing communication, loving expressions, deep connection and innocently fun-loving. 15% of the time he’s tough (thwarting many attempts to set limits, running FAST away from me to avoid said limit setting, repeatedly doing the very thing I’ve said ‘no’ to ten times in a row). 10% of the time he’s so intense I can barely breathe (slapping me across the face, deliberately being destructive and acting out of control).

    I’ve seemed to pinpoint the 10% times to him not having my undivided attention. I truly.give my son A LOT of time and presence. He is met by me. So, I just don’t understand why my folding a load of laundry ot making a quick phone call or cleaning up the kitchen makes him a lunatic. Am I doing something wrong.

    Hr will be 3 on Sept 16.

    beingdddddddddd ddestructive).

    • Kelly said,

      Shelly, you are not doing anything wrong! Your son is two…and is acting like he’s two. 🙂 You say he’s “delicious” (I absolutely love that description!) 75% of the time, and that is amazing! It sounds like he feels very connected to you and is a typical, fun-loving, exploratory little guy.

      One thing about toddlers, it’s not enough just to say no, we have to step in and help them. This may mean toddler-proofing the house and removing all forbidden objects from reach. Or it may mean getting between a toddler and another child to prevent him from hurting the other child (if, for example, he is hitting or throwing). Or it may mean holding a child’s hand firmly so he doesn’t run into the street. Because in any given situation, just saying “no” isn’t enough to communicate to an impulsive, emotional toddler that he shouldn’t do something. Until his brain matures enough that communication between the midbrain (the “emotional brain”) and the prefrontal cortex (the “logical brain” where self-control originates), he simply will not be able to stop, think, and act appropriately.

      Try setting him up with a new activity, toy, or art project that seems new and interesting when you have some things to get done. His attention will be focused so you can make that phone call!

  5. Parenting the Strong Willed Child – FaithsMessenger.Com said,

    […] Parenting Spirited Children: An Interview with Dr. Jane Nelsen ( […]

  6. Kelly said,

    So true, you definitely don’t want your upset little one running away on you! If your child has a tendency to do that, make sure you have some child-proof locks on the doors so he cannot get outside without you knowing, and then make sure you stay close to him when he is upset.

    When my son got upset when he was that age, I’d go with him into a safe place in the house and sit with him while he cried and vented. I made sure I stayed with him until the most intense emotions had passed, then I’d ask him if he wanted me to stay or go. As he grew up, we did this less and less until he was able to remove himself from a situation when he’s upset.

    Like Dr. Nelsen said in the interview, kids must be able to have their feelings about whatever limits you might set that they don’t like (even if it is a minor thing)…but parents need to make sure everyone is safe. I recommend finding a safe place to go with your son when he is upset…soon he’ll be able to go there on his own to calm down.

  7. Lana said,

    I am “practicing” positive discipline at home with my newly 4 year old, and for us it is working incredibly well. However, his “flare ups” of not being respectful (making silly noises, rolling around when he should be sitting still and paying attention, up running around, etc) are all happening at school! This is the only place where he is around other kids, which I think adds to the excitement. Not entirely sure how to handle that…

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