How to Cope With Your Child’s COVID-Crazy Behavior

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It’s an understatement to say the past four months have been tumultuous as COVID-19, Shelter-in-Place, racial injustice, and school closures have wreaked havoc on our daily lives. While adults cope with this in certain ways (wine, chocolate, and crying in their car, anyone?), our kids have their own host of survival tactics as they process how drastically their lives have changed.

Our children’s COVID-crazy behaviors mainly consist of taking their frustrations out on their parents, and it’s easy for us to misunderstand them and react in less-than-ideal ways. Today I’m going to review some of the behaviors we are seeing in kids and teens, why it’s happening, and what we as parents can do about it.

Regression

What it looks like:

  • Speaking in a baby voice
  • Resurgence of wetting the bed/underwear
  • Overnight waking
  • Clingy or whiny behavior including requests for more cuddles, neediness, seeking more reassurance, or asking for help more often

Why it’s happening: Often during times of stress, kids (and adults too!) revert to a more primitive or immature state. This is both normal and a sign that your child is feeling stressed. It typically happens when kids are overwhelmed and are not able to cope in a more mature or age-appropriate manner, even if they have shown mastery of those coping skills in the past.

What to do: Ignore the behavior and focus more on what’s going on below the surface. Instead of saying, “stop using that baby voice, it’s so annoying”, ask about their day and create a safe space for them to share. Please don’t shame, ridicule, or embarrass your child for a regressive behavior. This is a sign that your child needs kindness and compassion more than ever. Spend a few extra minutes of quality time with them, and maybe revisit rocking, holding, and other soothing motions. It may feel like you are “babying” your child, and that might be exactly what they need in that moment. I’m not too proud to admit there have been times lately where I have wanted to curl up in the fetal position and just ask for my partner to just hold me. We all need extra comfort sometimes. Reassure your child that things seem hard and that it’s ok. Use phrases like, “I’m here for you” or “we will get through this together”. We are our children’s greatest support system right now, especially as they are not able to see their friends, and our love and compassion go a long way.

Asserting Independence

What it looks like:

  • Arguing
  • Defiance, such as refusing to brush their teeth or shower
  • Temper tantrums, anger outbursts, storming out of the house, door slamming
  • Ignoring, eye rolling

Why it’s happening: Kids have little to no control over their lives right now. They can’t do many of the fun summer things they had planned, like see friends, go on vacation, attend camps, swim at the pool. They likely are not returning to school in the Fall. They feel unheard and frustrated and they are taking it out on their parents. Yes, our job is thankless sometimes, and it can take every fiber of patience to deal with these behaviors effectively. But it is so important that we try our hardest to respond with empathy.

What to do: Stay calm and start by listening. Even if their method of communicating is less than ideal, there may be hints of truth in their yelling or screaming that you can do something about. So pause, sit down and genuinely ask them to tell you why they are upset and then offer to help.

Model effective ways of communicating. Even if you feel equally angry, try to speak calmly and respectfully. This will help them feel calmer too and heard by you.

Look for opportunities to give your child or teen choices, even if it’s not your first preference. For instance, we were fighting for weeks with our kids about when they take their shower: before or after TV time. It seems so silly now, but I really wanted them to shower first. They really didn’t. We argued and argued. I finally stepped back and said, OK, I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to bathe before or after we watch our family TV show. Just by giving them the choice, the issue immediately fizzled out. This is hard and takes us relinquishing some of our own desire for control, but it can mean a lot to kids that they have control over something.

Emotional Liability

What it looks like

  • Frequent tearfulness and sadness
  • Anger, easy irritability, yelling, fighting
  • Walking on eggshells
  • Easily upset over seemingly small issues
  • Attention-seeking
  • Tantrums

Why it’s happening: Because we are in a global pandemic and on our 20th week of quarantine, things are really hard, and their lives have been completely uprooted. They know more than we think they do, and they are scared, worried and frustrated that their lives will never be the same. I can’t count how many times a day my son says, “I hate COVID”, and “when are things ever going to get back to normal”. Not to mention the fact that parents across the world are stressed to the max and barely holding it together. For better or worse, our kids feed off our energy levels, so when we are stressed, they are likely to be stressed, too.

What to do: Try really really hard to empathize with your child in the moment. Even when they are melting down about the seemingly smallest thing in the world and you want to laugh or cry or scream at them for making a big deal out of nothing, instead try to pause, take a deep breath, and remind yourself how hard this is for them. Remind yourself that your child is doing the best they can, and this meltdown isn’t really about having to eat vegetables or their waffles being too cold or not getting the corner seat on the couch. They are melting down because quite honestly their world is really challenging right now and there’s nothing they can do about it.

After you pause, try to connect with your child. Sometimes I just stop and offer a hug or go sit with them quietly for a minute until the moment passes. Sometimes laughing and trying to shrug off the offensive slight can lighten the mood. Other times, they might just need a moment to collect themselves and regroup. Let them go and do that. Try really hard not to yell at them, because then we are just have our own tantrum and that only makes things worse.

I also see this as a sign that our kids need more of our attention. My children are more emotional on the days or weeks that work has been really stressful, when I’ve had more meetings and have been less physically or emotionally present for them. So do your best to create that space and time with them, even if it’s only for a few extra minutes each day it does make a difference.

Avoidance

What it looks like

  • Sleeping all day
  • Spending all day (or wanting to spend all day) on screens
  • Spending all their time in their room

Why it’s happening: Kids and teens don’t have nearly as much privacy or alone time as they did pre-COVID. We are basically on top of each other all the time. So they seek out space wherever they can find it. Many teens are staying up very late and sleeping in late so they have quiet time to themselves at night and avoid some of the potential conflict with family during the day. Other kids use sleep or screens as a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings they don’t want to deal with, like anxiety about COVID or feeling sad about not going back to school.

What to do: Structure, routine and communication are key here. It’s OK for your kids’ sleep schedules to shift a bit as long as it doesn’t interfere with school or other parts of family life. Screen time is ok too, as long as there are structure and rules around it. Have a family meeting where you make the rules together as far as what are acceptable sleep and screen time schedules, write out the contract, hang it up in a common space, and then stick to it. Limit screens in their bedroom, especially at night. As we all know, nothing good happens on social media after 10 p.m., so try to limit that for them.

Recognize the balance of your child’s need for alone time versus spending too much time in their room. One way to give your child the incentive to come out of their room is to make that time more fun than what they are doing in their room. Make time for fun projects together, like baking, crafting, gardening, and the like. Allow them their space even when hanging out together; kids tend to hide out in their rooms if we are nagging or snooping too much.

Parents, good luck. Our job these days is way beyond what we signed up for and yet our little ones need us more than ever. Be sure to take care of yourself, too, and reach out to your tribe for support!

 

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Meredith
Meredith is a transplant to the Bay Area and has fallen in love with the weather, gorgeous scenery, and plethora of local wineries. A wife and mother of two, she works part-time as a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. She hails from Texas, where she attended the University of Texas and will always bleed orange. She then moved to Washington DC to attend Georgetown's School of Medicine, where she fell in love with her future husband, a fellow student, and has been happily married for almost a decade. She and her husband lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for several years for their medical training and found it the perfect place to start a family. She relocated to the Bay Area a few years ago and has quickly adapted to West Coast living. Meredith enjoys the balance of part-time working and full-time parenting and loves to write about this ongoing struggle. In her persistent drive to find more "me time", she actively pursues her interests in reading, running, soccer, baking, and wine tasting.

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