We know that children do well with routines. There’s the morning routine, then off to school or daycare. After school, there is another routine that could include homework, chores, or playing. Then it’s dinner and bedtime rituals. These help children settle in because they know what’s expected. But what happens with the unexpected happens and the routine is turned upside down?
Change is hard on anyone but some children take it worse than others. The lack of routine combined with uncertainty can cause children to be upset, anxious, or even depressed. Add to this the isolation of not being able to see friends and family and you may see your otherwise delightful child become angry and defiant.
Your child might also be exhibiting other signs of stress or anxiety like biting their nails when they hadn’t done this previously. They may be restless or fidgety, unable to focus on a task like homework or reading.
One temper fit can look like another but excessive crying, staying in their room, not interacting with the family, or not reaching out to friends are all signs that it’s more than just a temporary behavior issue. When you see changes to how your child would normally act, you’ll want to take special care to help your child learn to cope.
Understand that a child’s reaction is based, in part, on how you are reacting to the situation. They are learning from your example. So if you are overly stressed about being infected, losing your job, or paying the bills, children will pick up on this. Of course, it is very difficult to act like everything is okay when you’re really feeling pressure yourself.
What can you do to help children cope?
The first step is to really look at the behavior and decide if your child is acting out or genuinely upset and trying to communicate their feelings. Young children, especially, don’t have the words or ability to express how they feel and resort to crying or regressing to thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. These are all signs of stress or anxiety in a child and will possibly require the help of a behavioral specialist.
Starting a new daily routine helps but sometimes even that won’t go as planned. That’s okay. Just try again the next day. Eventually, the new schedule will become easier and help bring a sense of calm, control, and predictability to each day. Children always feel more confident when they know what to expect. During the day, as things go well, be sure to take the time to applaud the effort. For example, you can say, “You picked up your toys! Thank you – good job!”
Talk to your child about his or her feelings. Very young children might be able to draw a picture or express their feelings through art and play. Sit with them and listen. Respond with reassurance and age-appropriate truth. You might say something like, “Yes this can make you sick but we are going to do everything we can to keep ourselves well.” Answer questions honestly without giving too much information.
It’s also difficult to hear so much bad news each day. While you may not be able to shield your child from all the media, you can help her see all the good things that happen each day. The people who are helping others, the people handing out food or making masks. In many ways the pandemic has helped people come together, maybe not in the same place, but for the same reason.
Offering guidance to your children on how to stay healthy. This includes eating right, getting plenty of exercise, and sunshine. Help your child learn to take deep breaths. This can really help calm the nervous system especially when your child is expressing anxiety. The short mindful breathing exercises are ways to reset yourself and your child.
Be sure to stay up to date on the facts. Check reliable resources to get the most current information to keep your family healthy. Teach older children how to tell the difference between fact and rumor on social media. And be careful about watching the news or being on social media. By helping children stay informed, you’ll be adding to their level of confidence and sense of control which will reduce their anxiety.
Although dealing with change is not easy, most children will be okay with the support of their parents or caregivers, even if they are showing signs of stress. Some children, however, will need more help to manage their anxiety and you’ll need to talk to your doctor who can help you find the right person to help.