5 Tips for Managing Transitions with a Spirited Toddler

I hesitated to write this post because I’m sensitive about how I portray my little lady in our online world here, especially as she grows older. But, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize I can only offer a fresh perspective on this outdoor parenting thing if I am honest about how a child’s personality and temperament impacts our experience. At least that’s how I feel for now (time will tell how I tackle these posts in the future). I hope it is helpful to other parents of ‘spirited’ children out there! 

The new year may have offered a chance to turn over a new leaf in life, but in our family we started our new beginnings early. On December 1 we moved into a new house here in Banff when the one we were renting was sold to a new owner. That’s a lot of “new” in two sentences. But, I think it conveys just how much change we’ve experienced around here.

I knew moving would be taxing on us, but I greatly underestimated the impact it would have on the smallest member of our family. As it turns out, moving was a rather horrendous experience (for one example, picture a father running through a neighbourhood with a small child, totally nude, wrapped in a blanket because she refused to put clothes on for the -20ºC temperatures when it came time to actually go to the new house). I’m still recovering.

One week after moving into the new house we finally got Maya playing happily in the yard.

The experience taught me a great deal about my daughter. I have often suspected that she is a highly sensitive child – prone to feeling overwhelmed by too much stimulation or sudden, inexplicable change. I learned early on that I needed to be her greatest advocate, no matter what – even if people around me were telling me, “she’ll be fine!”

Now I know it to be positively true: my little darling is a spirited,  vivacious, and sensitive human being, whose joyful ups are as intense as her absolutely miserable downs. And we sure saw our share of downs in the past few weeks when life wouldn’t let me advocate enough for her needs.

We went from bedtime taking 2-4 hours per night to very early wake-up times. Nothing quite like making homemade granola bars at 6am!

I bring this up because for me the experience has also affirmed that the struggles we have experienced with getting our daughter into the outdoors in the past three years are likely not very typical to all families. Of course, every family has their own challenges. When it comes to mine, I’m beginning to recognize that when we have become the most frustrated – those times we wonder Why can’t we seem to pull off the things we see others doing? – it likely has to do with Maya’s quotient of sensitivity and her very particular preferences (which change moment to moment). Sometimes it’s not that we can’t do things; it’s more like we just don’t try because it’s utterly exhausting as a parent to deal with the requests and needs that greet us at nearly every turn.

Thinking back, I wrote about this last February in The Difference a Year Makes:

“Prior to our last trip I read as much as I could about other parents who travelled abroad with a baby. I’m now convinced that the ones who inspired me the most probably had a different kind of baby with them. These parents managed to make things look easy, spending six months or even a year away from home on adventurous expeditions or bouncing around like they were backpackers fresh out of high school. Either they left their real challenges out of the picture or they had miracle babies who slept anywhere, anytime.”

This temperament isn’t something we can or even want to change about Maya. I love her spirit and energy (and she reminds me of someone…me!). But looking back on a few of our more intense experiences – her waking at night every 45 minutes during our weeks in French Polynesia, her meltdowns on our infamous Jasper trip last year, her inability to settle in a tent at night – they all point to her being pushed too far past her threshold. On a less intense scale, I’m now starting to make sense of the minute-by-minute adjustments I make in my day, especially when we’re making an excursion, to make sure she feels in control. She’s definitely not an “extreme” case, but I have found comfort and empowerment in acknowledging that we need to take her particular temperature into consideration.

If this sounds like your experience, a book has been really helpful to me lately: Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. The emphasis here is on more. All toddlers can have these traits; spirited children exhibit them ten-fold.

I loved Kurcinka’s choice of word. “Spirited – it feels good, sounds good, communicates the exciting potential of these children,” she writes, “and yet honestly captures the challenge faced by their parents.” Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Through the help of this book and our own intuition we’re coming out of the funk. But I thought at least I’d leave you with a few of my tips. They don’t come from a parenting expert, but they do come from someone who has just been through the muck.

5 Tips for Managing Transitions with a Spirited Toddler

1. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Your child will be testing the boundaries even more as he or she learns to adjust to a new space. Let certain things go. In our case, Maya wouldn’t wear pants (or anything, really) for a week. If they care so much about “winning” those little battles, just give in. You can deal with it later (see #3).

2.  Be Mindful of Environment

Maya seems most affected by two things: her physical environment and her parents’ emotions. We were working really hard not to let the stress leak out. She still picked up on it. She also reacted very strongly to changes in her physical space (a box packed up here, furniture disappearing during the move, etc.). There wasn’t really anything we could do about these things before the move, but we were mindful of getting off on the right foot after. Her room, for instance, was the last room we dismantled at the old house and the first room we completed at the new house so that she had a safe, uncluttered space to be in. We also included her in the unpacking and decorating process, and she liked that. On the emotional front, we had grandmama here to give her lots of attention while we took care of stuff around the house, and we also made sure to have one-on-one play time with her.

3. Tackle One Little Issue at a Time

OK, so we had a few weeks where everything in our routine slid, right down to the basics, such as wearing a diaper, putting clothes on, going outside and getting to bed on time. You can’t adjust the behaviour all in one go. We started with a chart for diapers and took it as an opportunity to start on potty training again. Two weeks later, she got stickers for putting her clothes on. Then it was a bedtime sticker chart with step-by-step visuals. One step at a time.

4. Keep a (Flexible) Routine

As much as routines are important for toddler-age children, I found it worked best during the move/transition to be willing to let go of routine to simply ‘get through it’. I noticed that Maya felt more in control and at ease when she could shape her own day according to her very immediate needs. For example, on the last day of the move, little M didn’t want to go to the day home and ended up napping at 9am. I decided to trust that sleep was the most important thing for her during that time. After the move, it took us a while to get her comfortable about the things that we normally enjoyed doing together, such as going outside or running errands in the morning. After a few days of going with her flow, we began to shape the day more firmly. It hasn’t been without a struggle, but letting go of routine for a week or two was for the best.

5. Have Patience in the Process

I’m almost on the other side of it now, and I would say it has been a full two months of transitioning. It all began when we started to pack our boxes. As each day went on, the little one became more and more uneasy and unstable. It culminated with the move itself and has slowly dissipated, a little bit at a time as we distance ourselves from moving day. I know it’s hard to hear “be patient”. I cried more in December than in the previous year and woke up each morning feeling like I’ve been hit by a ton of bricks. While it seemed inescapable at times, I can see now that we are almost through it.

How have you managed transitions as a parent?

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Meghan,
    Just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog and laugh, sympathize and empathize, not to mention am so inspired by your advice.
    Our journey with our daughter from birth to early toddlerhood has also been filled with unexpected turns. While pregnant I rock-climbed till my due date (thanks to your harness advice!) – and made lots of outdoorsy plans for our LO. I look back and laugh now! Eve was born with a cleft palate and suffered horrible reflux so her first year was a mad scramble of hospital appointments, pumping milk and specialty bottles. But somehow we did make it to Skaha, Okanagan for a week’s climbing. We only got in one route a day and it was all made possible by our amazingly patient (and childless) friends. But it was awesome in an exhausting way.
    Now she is rapidly turning into the spirited toddler you mention and I’m learning to embrace small victories – like snow shoeing for an hour as opposed to a day, and learning to see the world through her eyes, albeit excruciatingly slowly at times.
    Looking forward to hearing more adventures from your precious family!

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