“Since we started social distancing, my seven-year-old and four-year-old kids have been acting out a lot more than usual. They're not doing their chores, talking back more, fighting with each other and just generally misbehaving. I understand that these are difficult circumstances and I want to be empathetic to how stressful this situation must be for them, but I also don't want to create any bad habits or condone disruptive behavior. What should I do?”
What is happening is completely normal, given this unprecedented situation. During this time of collective grief, we have lost not only lives, but also our lives as we know it.
It’s difficult for everyone in the family, including kids who are losing part of their childhoods due to the novel coronavirus. They’re stuck at home, while their parents are trying to work. They lost their routines, contact with teachers and friends and opportunities to practice independent skills. For younger children, it means losing critical sensory and physical experiences, like touching and hugging, jumping around the playground and imaginary play. These experiences calibrate their social skills and regulate their emotions. They really need social feedback from their friends. So yes, some “acting out” is to be expected. But understanding and acknowledging the losses related to this pandemic can help us to navigate these challenging times. Here are some ways you can help them (and yourself) during social distancing.
1. Take care of yourself. It’s possible that your children are picking up on your feelings of anxiety and stress and channeling them into their behavior. While it’s understandable that parents are grappling with difficult emotions right now, it’s important to find time to practice self-care. When we are well, we can take care of others. In order to navigate our family life these days, we definitely need to make self-care a priority.
2. Find opportunities to talk about what is happening. Although parents and caregivers have extremely challenging demands, our kids need us more than ever. Children need to feel more connected to you. Ask your children how they feel, find out what they know, clarify information and validate their feelings. Kids pick up information like sponges so they may have heard something on the news or elsewhere that is making them upset. Reassure them that the parents are in control and that they’re safe.
3. Establish new routines (but include your kids in the process). Kids thrive on routines so even though their day-to-day looks different now, come up with a predictable schedule together. If they are part of the process, they’ll be more likely to be engaged and participate. For example, you might want to do breathing exercises in the morning and teach them to practice this when they feel angry, frustrated or nervous. Some other ideas include scheduling time in the day to play with them, giving them age-appropriate chores and having 30 to 60 minutes of unstructured time—this is good for their creativity and also gives them a sense of control.
4. Be flexible. Adjust expectations for everyone and in all areas. We are in a very different situation and it’s just not possible to continue with the same expectations. (In other words, don’t beat yourself up if your kids are watching more TV than usual or if you don’t follow the schedule perfectly one day.)
5. Spend special alone time with your children. To improve the relationship between you and your kids, try to spend some time (10 to 15 minutes) with each one individually, and then together. Let them choose what they want to do during that time and identify activities they can do together. Establish rules and involve them in the process (for example, no hitting, biting or pushing even if they feel angry).
Remember, this behavior is perfectly normal given these strange times. Don’t forget to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
Karen Caraballo, Psy.D., is a child and family clinical psychologist in New York City.