My daughter is my first-born, and as with all mothers of firstborns, I didn’t know any differently. I knew she was a hard baby, that was evident– she was the type of baby to make a fool out of sleep training, a baby who learned to fake cough at 12 weeks for attention– but I had no idea what I was up against until her emergence into toddlerhood coincided with the birth of my easygoing son. Not only did it strike me that not all babies are that exhausting, but I also came to understand what it meant to have not just a toddler, not just a hard toddler, but to be the parent of a strong-willed child.
A strong-willed or “spirited” toddler is essentially the same as any other toddler, just, amplified. Their energy is visceral, all-consuming, and often beyond their control.
A tantrum is not just a tantrum. Gratification is not just an immediate desire, but an urgent need. If they are ignored, they will find extreme ways to gain attention. If they are overstimulated they become overwhelmed and will react in unreasonable ways.
Potty training was an experience that scarred me for life. She was trained in one week without issue, but it took nine months to break her of the habit of peeing on purpose, anytime, anywhere and with a smile on her face. I suspect that in truth, the reason she stopped this behaviour was because she had broken me and thus lost the thrill.
At daycare she is often separated from the rest of her group. When I first realized this I was upset and indignant, asking how dare my daughter be isolated? But with time, observation and understanding, I realized that the larger the group, the greater the stimulation; the less personal attention she receives, the more she reacts. When in a large group, if she wants attention but can’t get it immediately, she responds by physically hurting the person whose attention she wants. It took me a long time to understand that her intention is not to actually hurt the other person, but that the behaviour is a compulsion she hasn’t yet learned to control.
As a parent I have struggled personally to balance her needs with my own. To be able to give my son an equivalent amount of attention, for example, is a challenge I have failed time and again.
Beyond that, she is an extrovert who feeds off the energy of others, and I am an introvert who not only craves but needs time alone in order to maintain my sanity and sensibility.
Independent play is something I encourage in order to steal small moments where I can regroup, but, for my daughter, independent play is when she plays while I sit with her and participate. Without my participation she gets edgy, hyper, physically aggressive. Without time to myself I get agitated and impatient. The combination is a tricky one. As a mother it is my duty to meet her needs and to help make sense of her heightened sensitivity to the world around her. As a human being, I have my own needs. Period. And when they aren’t met I become reptilian, rather than the poised and educated person I imagine myself to be.
Now that she is four, and my son two, I recognize that the further removed from the baby stage I get, the more energy I have to devote to recognizing her triggers and curbing her behaviours before they get too intense. When I succeed she demonstrates the most beautiful of personalities, full of humour and a love of story-telling. When I succeed she shares, is gentle with others, and is more prone to thinking calmly. Like this I too am calm. When I fail, she is beside herself, emotionally wounded, and lashes out. This is exhausting to me, and my parenting deteriorates as quickly as her behaviour.