Young Children’s Behavior Problems During the Summer and During the Quarantine

Young Children’s Behavior Problems During the Summer and During the Quarantine

As summer is in full swing and many aspects of the quarantine continue around the country, we who are parents have had ample opportunities for good times and challenging times with our children over the last several months. Just from being around our children so much, many parents are noticing challenges in behavior that they hadn’t noticed before.

The pandemic has transformed our lives in ways we never expected. Time off from work and school is a nice break from routine and some quality time spent as a family and away from every day obligations seemed refreshing at first. However, as we realized that this impromptu vacation was extending beyond just a couple of weeks and instead, turning into months of home schooling, the novelty of staying home has become stressful. Children need structure and daily schedules in order to not only perform well academically, but developmentally and emotionally, too. The stress of everyone staying at home, going to bed and waking up at odd hours, and intense boredom that sets in, at some point, on a daily basis isn’t just a problem parents must cope with. These drastic changes to day-to-day life can be just as emotionally distressing (or more) for your child.

As adults, we can try to create a routine for ourselves that will help us be productive during these unusual times, but how many of us can say that we have strictly followed a good sleep schedule, healthy diet, exercise routine, and at-home work productivity during the pandemic? We all have difficulty sticking to this level of discipline; therefore, it’s no surprise that kids will struggle and resist self-imposed rules and routines, too. We worry about the many unknowns and have (tried to) come to terms with the fact that we don’t really know if we will ever get back to the normal life we knew, not too long ago. As adults, we can try to process the many accompanying thoughts and feelings that come with change and uncertainty. It’s important to keep in mind that children have many of these same thoughts and concerns only their manner of expressing their feelings will differ.

Behavioral problems are one way that children express emotions like fear, doubt, worries, and difficulty coping with change. Think of how you, as an adult, manifest and express emotions that you have difficulty processing. Maybe you become irritable or easily annoyed, snap at your partner, or begin to cry more readily than usual. You might isolate yourself more, feel more exhausted than usual, or find you need more alone time to regroup. These behaviors and reactions are like the adult version of behavioral problems.

We might assume that children lead stress-free lives because as a parent, you know you are there to protect them and make sure everyone stays afloat during these times of change and transition. But despite doing everything you can to keep your child emotionally and physically safe, they still experience fears and doubts as they try to process the pandemic and the new ‘normal’s’ like everyone else.

Helping Your Child Cope

You have probably read and heard advice about the importance of talking to your child during these uncertain times, but if your child is displaying behavioral problems, a good method is to let them do the talking.

Misbehavior is one way a child uses to express pent up emotions they cannot cope with, so talking to them will not always allow them the release they very much need. Sit with your child and in addition to addressing the behavioral issues, ask them how they feel about everything that’s going on with the pandemic. Expect reactions like hesitation to express how they feel or even inattention when you try to engage with them. This is particularly the case with younger children who may not be able to sustain attention to a conversation with you for very long, even if it’s them doing the talking.

If verbalizing their feelings isn’t quite working, provide your child with other methods of self-expression. Helpful tools include art and music, which are healthy ways that anyone, regardless of age or developmental level, can express their feelings. Some examples of how you can use these tools include sitting with your child and encouraging them to draw how they see the pandemic. Provide colors and plenty of space on a large piece of paper for your child to draw and color. When they have completed their work, ask your child about the meaning of their drawings. This is where you let them do the talking and expressing. You can use music in a similar manner, encouraging your child to sing, pick songs or YouTube videos they enjoy, and release pent up energy by allowing them to dance, shout, or express themselves in whatever way they enjoy. This method provides an organized and more structured manner of allowing your child to freely release energy and emotions that they are holding onto (while breaking the ‘rules’ a bit) and that often are eventually expressed through maladaptive behaviors.

Regardless of the approach you use with your child, the point is to provide a healthy outlet where he/she can express feelings and unload the stress that has surely been weighing on them. Allow your child the opportunity to learn and grow from these new experiences related to the pandemic by keeping their communication with you open and frequent.

Addressing Behavior Problems

That said, we still don’t want behavior problems to persist. When behavior is openly defiant, challenging to your authority as a parent, or otherwise self-centered, harmful to others, or just inappropriate, we want to handle it appropriately and not let the excuses of how hard it is to parent during the quarantine to take over. Appropriate self-care for parents is important so that they can engage with their children and not get burnt out. Be clear on expectations and follow-through when those expectations are not followed. Teaching and training your children towards proper behavior is a must-do quarantine activity for parents. Three tips for this include:

  1. Prepare your child ahead of time for what is expected. For example, if you are going to do an art project, explain the rules before the project begins. If mealtime is a challenge, talk with your child about appropriate table manners before the food is served.
  2. If expectations are not followed, an appropriate consequence may follow. The art project may need to be ended prematurely, a time-out may be in order, or in our mealtime example, the child may not receive dessert.
  3. Calmly talk with your child about what happened, how their choices impacted the situation and how it affected your relationship. Then walk the child through age-appropriate responsibility taking and apology if they have not already. Then tell them you forgive them and move on with the day.

These steps will likely provide more structure to your parenting during a hectic quarantine, summer day. Be patient with yourself and your children as you implement these steps and be sure to understand the communicative intention of many behaviors and how children need appropriate, safe outlets to express themselves.

Dr. Michael Messina

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