Parenting a Spirited Preschooler

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

I need help and I don’t know where to turn. My son will be three years old in a few months and he is out of control. No matter where we go or what we do he will not listen. At a restaurant he will get up from the table and run around the place screaming. After we get him he will do it again. He does this grocery shopping too. However, grocery shopping is worse because he thinks it’s funny to run away from us across the store. It never ends no matter what I do. I know he doesn’t understand what he does is dangerous, but he is a very, very smart kid.

He also doesn’t go to sleep at night. He will stay up until 11 or 12 p.m. He won’t stay in the room and his behavior is stressing me out so much that I have been yelling a lot. I don’t know what to do and just start randomly crying. He does this to me and my husband. He is always hyper-active and can never be still. I never see other kids acting this way when we are out. It is embarrassing. It looks like I can’t take care of my kid. Please help.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Chris: So your child is just too rambunctious to handle? Before you blame yourself or blame your child, the first place to look is in your refrigerator and cupboard. The human body best handles and digests foods in their natural state.

I used to think that since artificial colors and flavors were approved by the government they were safe to consume. Turns out they’re more like exposure to a cold virus – some people are more susceptible to catching it than others. In the same way, some people are more sensitive to artificial additives. So many children (and adults too) experience radical changes in behavior simply from consuming certain chemicals (the stuff artificial colors and flavors are made from). Think about it: it’s artificial and some strange combination of chemicals. Why would you want to put that in your body?

Additionally, processed foods (especially those containing white flour and white sugar) can wreak havoc on many of the body’s internal systems. How do you know if an item is overly processed? Look at the ingredients list and check for two things: (1) Can you pronounce everything on the list? and (2) Is the list really short? If you’ve answered no to either question, you are holding a highly processed “food.”

Also ensure that your child is getting adequate amounts of good fats. The hallmark of the American diet is to talk about low fat, but this is not the healthiest way, nor what your great-grandparents ate. Ensure your kid is getting healthy doses of good fats like DHA and omega-3’s, available in things like salmon and sardines, butter, and olive and coconut oils.

For a quick and easy read about nutrition and behavior, check out chapter 10 of “Feeding Good Behavior” in William and Martha Sears’ The Discipline Book (pp 14-130). Another good book you might consider is The NDD Book by the same authors, which is about nutritional deficit disorder and how it affects your children.

Please note that I’m not a doctor and cannot lawfully give medical advice. I am speaking from personal experience and the sources noted.

While you’re making these changes in your diet, let’s talk about direct things you can do to both influence his behavior and prevent out-of-control tantrums. It sounds like he might be sensitive to crowds. He feels out of control in these situations. In order to maintain his sense of control, he runs from you and finds it amusing – that’s his way of coping.

To help remedy this problem, start by relating to him in ways he’ll understand. “I don’t like crowded places either – they make me feel out of control.” Keep him close to you (hold him, wear him, or let him ride in the cart and always stay next to him) and reassure him of your presence. Limit his exposure to crowds as much as possible.

Our oldest son, who is just over three, often fights sleep as well. The tough thing for him is transitioning from one activity to the next, be it getting dressed, leaving, or stopping play to get ready for bed. Establish routines that work for you and your child and give “warnings” (e.g. “It’ll be time for bed after you’ve finished building your tower.”). If warnings are upsetting, wait for a lull in the current activity and then ask, “Are you ready for bed? It’ll be time to go soon.” Don’t use time in your warnings (like, “Bedtime in 5 minutes”) because a child that age has no concept of time.

Lastly, remember that your child is not doing these things to you. All children have major adjustments to make as they grow, both in adjusting to the world they live in and to their growing bodies. Be patient and look on them in love.

Melissa: I’m sorry to hear you are having a difficult time with your nearly three year old! I have always personally found age three to be more trying than age two, despite all of the cultural bemoaning over the “terrible twos.” It sounds like you have a spirited one on your hands!

Let me assure you that you and your husband are not alone. Children of this age are constantly on the move and constantly testing their parents’ patience. It is developmentally normal and appropriate for two and three year olds to behave in the manner you describe, and your child’s temperament contributes to the intensity of this behavior. You may have a child whose temperament is high energy, persistent, and difficult to manage, which makes those normal two and three year old behaviors much more challenging to parent.

Several things come to mind as far as questions I would ask if we were discussing this face to face. First would be sleep patterns. How often does your child sleep? How well? How does he go to sleep; alone or with you, nursing or cuddling? Does he take naps? The vast majority of difficult to manage toddler behavior stems from four sources: your toddler being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. I would probably slip “not tired” in there, also, as it is possible for toddlers’ naps to interfere with their nighttime sleep patterns by making them too alert for bedtime.

The second question I would ask would be regarding daily routines. Toddlers often do very well when they and their inner clocks follow a very similar routine nearly every day. For example: eat breakfast, drive sibling to school, come home and watch one children’s t.v. show, eat a snack, play or run errands with parent, eat lunch, pick up sibling from school, nap, play, dinner, bath, bedtime. Often, there is a separate routine leading up to bedtime as well: bath, story, milk, brush teeth, cuddle, bedtime~or a variation of this.

The third question would be regarding time. How much of your daily time is spent focused on your toddler? As parents we must all balance many demands for our time, and must ensure time for ourselves, our spouse, important friends and family, work, and our kids. If you are feeling like you are not getting any time for yourself, it will affect your patience and stamina in dealing with your toddler. If your toddler is not getting enough focused time from you, his behavior will start to deteriorate. If you can spend several 15 to 20 minute time periods throughout your day on the floor, focused on playing with him or reading to him, he will feel much more calm and focused in general. Also ensure that you are getting enough time for yourself: I understand that because your son stays up until 11 or 12, it would be incredibly challenging to get this time. It would be wonderful if you could arrange his routine and sleep patterns into something that allows you more time in the evenings when you are awake and your son is asleep.

The fourth question would be regarding food. Foods with additives, dyes, and preservatives have been shown by research to affect children’s behavior in negative ways. Some children are more sensitive than others, and some even have allergies which show up foremost in their behavior. If it is possible to make some diet changes you may see some improvement in his behavior. Try and balance healthy protein, vegetable/fruit, dairy, and grain intake to reflect the food guide, and eat as much home made and/or organic as possible.

Some books and resources which you may find helpful include: Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary S. Kurchinka; Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky A Baily; Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman; and The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers: Gentle Ways to Stop Bedtime Battles and Improve Your Child’s Sleep by Elizabeth Pantly.

Keep in mind that nearly all parenting books have some good and some not so good advice in them ~ take what works for you, your child, and your family, and leave the rest without a second glance. My second son, who is now six and a half years old, is from the ‘spirited’ category and was a very challenging toddler. I empathize with you and hope you can find some solutions that work for your family. These books listed above were helpful for me during those challenging years. He is now a bright and fun six year old, charming and charismatic, outgoing, and, yes, still very ‘spirited!’

Some small tidbits that don’t fit neatly into the above four question categories are: be consistent. Follow through when you set a limit. Be prepared to leave restaurants, grocery stores, and play dates because of your child’s behavior. Set your child up for success by choosing casual restaurants, bringing a bag full of toys, stickers, your Ipod with children’s music on it, books, and other entertainment items, and staying less than an hour total. Grocery shop without your child, or involve him in the process and keep trips short. And tap into your village: play groups, grandparents, aunts and uncles, good friends, baby sitting swaps with other parents, and alone time with your spouse are essential for surviving the intense toddler years with a more intense than usual toddler! We all need our village. Thank you for letting NPN be a small part of yours! Best of luck, and keep us posted on your progress.

Mandy: It can often be trying for parents when children begin to grow more independent. The behavior is often seen as defiant or manipulative, when in truth, young children are discovering themselves and the world around them. This is an important time in our relationships with our children. By treating our children with respect and working with them in a consensual manner, we build a firm foundation of love and respect for all of their future relationships – including the ones they have with us.
We can help our children as they learn about their developing independence and the world around them.

  • Help them know what to expect. People like to know what to expect in new situations. Give your child a quick itinerary prior to the situation about what is going on and how everyone should handle it.
  • Involve your child. Everyone likes to be helpful. Giving your child jobs that he can help with serves to bolster his developing independence while keeping him engaged.
  • Factor in kid time. Children are curious about the world around us. Planning for additional time relieves everyone of the stress of hurrying about.
  • Make a game of it, and turn a negative experience into a positive one.
  • Listen to your child. Really listen. Our assumptions of others’ motives are often very wrong. The use of active listening helps everyone to work together. When we listen to our children, they are more likely to listen to us.
  • Make certain his needs are met. A person who is stressed is less likely to cooperate. Children can easily become stressed by hunger, fatigue, over-stimulation, or a lack of connection.
  • Double check your expectations. Are they age appropriate?
  • Take a deep breath. Forget about what anyone else may think and focus on your child. Ask yourself why he may be acting this way. Use the SALVE technique. Remember the power of 10.
  • Allow your child to have a voice or choice. Whenever possible, children should be given a choice in matters. When that isn’t possible, their views and thoughts should still be acknowledged. Parents will usually find that if they take the time to listen to their child’s point of view, they can work with their child to come up with a solution that works for everyone.


Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products and/or information are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease. Readers are advised to do their own research and make decisions in partnership with their healthcare provider. If you are pregnant, are nursing, have a medical condition, or are taking any medication, please consult your physician. Nothing you read here should be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis, or courses of treatment.

3 Responses to Parenting a Spirited Preschooler

  1. Jenn  

    Beautiful article. I know this will be me asking these questions before long. At 20 months my son is already well into the “terrible twos” and I welcome any advice.

    I had read about the connection between behavior and artificial dyes about six months ago and was amazed. We have since gone artificial dye-free in all of what we eat, so I hope that’s saving us some troubles.

    I also appreciate hearing again that this behavior is well within normal for kids this age. It is reassuring. We’ll get through this.

    Great article.

  2. debbie m

    i can totally relate. i have a spirited 6 year old who was spirited from birth. smart as a whip, but he requires patience and understanding…. a special boy. 🙂

  3. Cassie

    I totally agree with the diet aspect. Diet is very very important to gain control over for all of us. The other aspect that was touched on but maybe not emphasized quiet enough is the importance of sleep. Both of my children have needed 12 hours of sleep a night. If they miss that by even 1/2hour they are cranky whinny and hard to deal with. Also the temper tantrums and out of control behavior is outrageous.
    Another point to always remember with anyone but especially spirited children is when you speak to them be sure to get down on their level (squat or kneel) and have them look at you. If you want them to hear you and take you seriously you need to make sure you have their attention. I learned this one the hard way. I did a lot of yelling across the room/store etc. But it wasn’t until I slowed down and became intentional in my approach and CONNECTED with my child. Just something to keep in mind if you really are trying to get through to your child.