Differing Personalities: Understanding Your Spirited, High-Needs Kid

Dealing with a mini introvert when you’re an extrovert (and vice-versa) is a challenge all parents face



I don’t know how many parents chalk up their parent-child discord to a difference in personality. I certainly never did. I just assumed that it is difficult (if not impossible) to relate to a  small, semi-communicative, erratic, and emotional mini-human and any expectations for true communion (at least during the Terrible Two-Almost-Threes) were foolish and naive. But now — after a rough few weeks and a revisit to Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka — I’m starting to see the light.

Kurcinka defines the main characteristics of a spirited child as intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, energetic, and moody. They also have difficulty adapting to new people or situations, don’t transition easily, and tend to maintain irregular schedules when it comes to eating and sleeping. Of course there are kids who are super energetic or stubborn who aren’t necessarily spirited, so Kurcinka notes that spirited children are just “more” of each characteristic. If you have one, you probably understand what she means by that.

I’ve suspected Coraline was “spirited” since she was a baby. I came to this conclusion after reading Dr. Sears’ 12 Features of a High Needs Baby (“spirited” and “high needs” are interchangeable). On the recommendation of a friend I picked up Kurcinka’s book but only got a few chapters in, just far enough to confirm that toddler Coraline was indeed still spirited and I myself was a “spirited parent.” Bonus.

Overwhelmed by the scope of this realization, I put the book away and decided to just feel my way through it. Fast forward a year and I’m crouched on the floor at the Little Gym fighting back tears as I frantically try to get Coraline to assimilate into a big-kid gymnastics class. I don’t get my own kid, I thought to myself. I don’t understand her at all. In that moment I felt not only like a giant failure, but totally hopeless that it would ever get better. We’re destined for dysfunction. We’ll be estranged by the time she’s in junior high. I cried all the way home. We’re going to call this mommy rock bottom.

I didn’t understand her. But I think I do now. Because now I have a clear understanding of introversion versus extraversion. Coraline is an introvert. And, to my surprise, I am an extrovert. This doesn’t just mean she is anti-social and I’m a social butterfly — she does love talking to people and seeing friends, and I do need lots of alone time — rather we “recharge,” as Kurcinka puts it, differently. If we are too busy, or spend too much time with other people, Coraline starts falling apart; as an introvert she requires quiet time to recharge her battery. I on the other hand, start falling apart if I spend too much time isolated (which includes time spent with just the two-year-old); as an extrovert I feel revitalized by time spent with friends.

When I consider these differences in personality, what Coraline and I struggle with day-to-day makes perfect sense. Our needs don’t usually match up. Take the aforementioned Little Gym scene — I was expecting my introverted daughter to jump right into a new class, with new people, without me. Wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t give her the time and space she needed to ease into it, and we both ended up frustrated (and un-enrolling from gymnastics). Or when I see Coraline after being apart, I want to talk, to hear about her day, know what she wants to do next. She often won’t answer me. So I bug her, taking her long pauses after I ask a question for disrespect or disinterest, when it’s just her being the way she is. It isn’t right or wrong, it’s just who she is. And understanding that better prepares me to meet her needs. It’s a relief. For both of us, I’m sure.

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One mom's plan to raise a kid — without raising greenhouse gases

About This Blog

Shannon Gallagher

Shannon Gallagher
Rhinebeck, NY


Dutchess County native Shannon Gallagher is a contributing editor for Hudson Valley Magazine. An erstwhile thrill-seeker, these days she courts disaster of a different variety wrangling a spirited toddler, honing her vegan baking skills, and chasing the ever-elusive work-family balance. She teaches Pilates and does fascial bodywork, and lives in Rhinebeck with Coraline, a cat named Otie, and Sushi the Fish (named, of course, by the toddler).

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