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Understanding Your Child’s Pandemic Behavior

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
03/01/21  8:00 AM PST
pandemic

Why is My Child Having Pandemic Meltdowns?

Our children are feeling as overwhelmed as we are. This pandemic has created a sedentary lifestyle with little down time, time outside of our homes and little social interaction. Our usual routines of spontaneous social interactions, spur of the moment runs to the store, or last minute planning of where to have dinner tonight all now require a ton of thought and planning about how we can stay safe and keep others safe from the COVID-19 virus.

As parents, our tempers are shorter, we are overstimulated and overwhelmed. Home is now our office, our school building, our restaurant and our place for rest and relaxation. We are spending a great number of hours together each day with little interaction with others. Our children are frustrated and so are we.

As a Psychologist, I have spoken with parents who have been sharing that their younger children are anxious and need to be on or near their parents throughout the day. They also don’t understand why they aren’t able to see and hug friends and family members. Parents are left physically and emotionally drained by the end of each day.  School aged children are struggling to complete schoolwork and miss their friends and routines. They miss their field trips, playdates and after school sports and activities. Our teens feel more isolated than ever. Their schoolwork is abundant and their ability to interact with a teacher is limited. They are distracted, struggle to complete their assignments and their grades are slipping. Students who would have spent time to visit college campuses are now making decisions based on virtual tours.

The meltdowns are ample. Parents are feeling triggered by their children and meltdowns are happening on a regular and loud basis. Here are a few things to think about which may help you, as a parent, to understand what your child is trying to tell you and how to manage the meltdowns before they happen.

Regulate

As parents, the demands that we feel are placed upon us always felt big. Now they are astronomical as the physical and emotional labor of caring for ourselves, our homes and our children has increased immensely. We are preparing meals, finding ways to entertain our children, and managing their schoolwork with a level of detail that we have never had.

As we feel overwhelmed, our ability to regulate a dysregulated child is very difficult. Thinking back to our generation of parents, when they raised their voice, we settled down and straightened up. Now, we raise our voices and our children may try to outdo the volume by going 3 more levels higher. What ends up happening? A lot of yelling and no outcome. Parents then feel the need to dole out consequences, take away privileges with the biggest one being screens, which are our children’s way of connecting with peers and finding respite from schoolwork.

As a parent, be aware of how you feel during an interaction with your child or teen. Read the cues you are seeing from your child. Does she want to be left alone? If so, ask directly, “Maybe now is not a good time to talk. I’ll come back in 5 minutes.” Trying to make a demand of your child or share an email you just received from your child’s teacher about a missing assignment or missed class at a time when they are not ready to receive it is like adding fuel to the fire. Your message won’t be heard and no effective discussion will take place.

If you find yourself becoming angry or anxious, take a break. Step away from an interaction and try to calm your body down. Regulate and regulate again and again until you have clarity to your thoughts and are ready to engage in a back-and-forth conversation. There is no benefit in trying to impose your will. Take a step back and calmly try to assess what is happening, the demand at hand and be realistic in what you want to happen in that moment.

Assess Your and Your Child’s Sensory Needs

Parents are noticing that younger children and elementary aged children are appearing to be hyperactive or impulsive. They are moving constantly and touching things and family members, or are excessively chatty. Our children may be overstimulated or under-stimulated and may be attempting to find the sensory input they need to feel calm, but are unable to achieve their goal.

Parents are watching their children jump on or off the couch, crash into walls, and get into physical fights with siblings. Let’s examine why this may be happening: our children may be under-stimulated and seeking sensory stimulation from the environment in order to feel calm. Some of our children are over-stimulated by virtual learning, multiple demands from teachers and parents and are anxious or become agitated because they can’t incorporate all of the sensory input in a meaningful way and generate a response, or lack thereof.

If your child is working with an Occupational Therapist, consult with him or her and ask for a list of sensory diet exercises or sensory equipment, such as a trampoline, a weighted blanket, a bean bag, or mats to jump on and crash in to. Create opportunities for your child who is sensory seeking in your home as opposed to demanding that your child to discontinue the behavior. Your child may need an outlet and stifling it will only increase the behavior you are looking to eliminate or decrease.

Connect

Our children are feeling the lack of connection that they once had with their teachers, friends, and coaches. Their agitation or meltdowns can be due to a withdrawal and a deep craving for emotional connection. I encourage us all to be compassionate, empathic and patient with our children. Seek your child out at time where you are both calm and regulated and check in.

Ask questions such as:

  • How are you?
  • How was your day?
  • How are you feeling?
  • Are you sleeping well?
  • What’s on your mind?
  • Tell me what’s going well during the last week.
  • Tell me what’s not going well during the last week.
  • Do you need help with schoolwork?
  • Do you need help with anything?

Remember to take a step back if your child is not ready to engage. Keep the invitation open by stating something like, “Maybe now isn’t a good time but I’ll be down in the kitchen when you’re ready.” During the conversation, if you feel like you are getting nowhere or your child is responding with an “attitude” or does not seem welcoming, be patient and stay calm. Speak slowly and quietly, and keep trying again and again.

Many of us are receiving emails from our children’s teachers and guidance counselors about missed assignments or low grades. This is a tough time to be a student. Avoid coming down on your child about assignments and grades. Understand that they are doing the best they can by “attending school” via a computer. Avoid consequences and loss of privileges based on grades. Instead, work together with your child and teachers or guidance counselors to have them create accommodations and plans to help your child. The burden of responsibility is not on you, the parent and this is not a reflection of “bad parenting.” This is a product of a pandemic.

When having a conversation with your child, avoid comments such as:

  • You should do _____.
  • I think you’re wrong.
  • Don’t do that.
  • You’re not handling that correctly.

Instead, use phrases such as:

  • That sounds stressful.
  • I’m sorry that you had to have that experience/conversation.
  • That sounds difficult.
  • Is there anything I can do to help?
  • How can we work on this together?
  • Do you have any ideas how to make _____ better?

As overwhelmed parents, it’s very easy to perceive your child’s behaviors as being intentional, manipulative and due to defiance. Life has been incredibly different in the last 9 months. Be patient with your children and try to interpret the source of your child’s behaviors as being due to a reason that you cannot see or interpret with ease. Be compassionate. Take time to understand before you react. Try to avoid punishments, consequences and taking away privileges as we know that when children can be well, they are. It’s our job to understand the circumstances that are leading to the pandemic meltdowns and to attempt to make changes where changes can be made.

Dr. Liz Matheis

 

Dr. Liz Matheis is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and certified School Psychologist who specializes in working with children with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Learning Disabilities, and behavioral struggles. She is also mom to three children, one with special needs. Her practice, Psychological and Education Consulting, is located in Livingston, New Jersey.

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