If your kids are acting out, they might just be sad

The pandemic brought a major upheaval to the lives of Amber Sparks and her 5-year-old daughter, and her daughter is exhibiting unruly behavior because of it.

Sparks, a Washington, DC-based writer and author of the short story collection “And I Do Not Forgive You,” recently witnessed her daughter having a meltdown over “something incredibly trivial, like a crayon breaking or something like that.”

“She started screaming and throwing things around, including her whole body, and it lasted for half an hour, I think. She never has tantrums like that, until now,” Sparks said.

“She just kind of wore herself out. At the end she was just crying quietly on her bed, and I was hugging her, and she said very quietly, ‘I miss school and I miss my friends.’ It was so sad.”

Sparks and her daughter live in a small apartment in the city, where they used to walk to parks, museums, restaurants, libraries and bookstores. Now they mostly stay home alone, Sparks said. And her daughter never hit her mother or anyone else until this crisis.

“I can see her get so frustrated, all the feelings rising up, and her little body can’t quite contain them all,” Sparks said. “I just try to hug her because what else can I do?”

Sparks’ tweet about that meltdown received more than a quarter of a million interactions, as other parents commiserated by sharing similar experiences.

Kids are sad because they’re missing their friends, routines, structure and predictability, said Christopher Willard, a psychiatry lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of “The Breathing Book,” a breathing practice book for kids.

They’re feeling the same emotions that adults are about the pandemic, Willard said, but expressing them in different ways: They cry, cut their hair, yell, scream, argue and fight with their siblings.

With the advice of a psychiatrist and a psychologist who specialize in working with children, parents can pause and respond productively. They can help their children through the hard moments and prevent (some) future meltdowns by supporting their emotional stability and giving them the tools to express their feelings.

Recognizing the root of bad behavior

Even the best parents are having trouble keeping up with the basics as they work from home and try to keep regular daytime schedules, get three healthy meals on the table, make sure their kids get enough exercise and keep to bedtime routines, Willard said.

“That’s been hard for our kids,” Willard said. “That’s also going to impact their mental health. It’s going to impact their impulse control and their ability to regulate their emotions.”

Children may also regress to the pastimes and misbehavior of their younger years because it makes them feel safe. Kids also aren’t getting the social reinforcement from peers that tells them tantrums aren’t cool. That’s good peer pressure they’re missing.

If they’re engaging in more destructive behaviors, such as cutting their hair, they could be bored, said Mary Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist specializing in treatment of youths and coauthor of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.”

“The other thing that’s happening is that parents are so stressed out, so the kids are home and used to probably getting a fair amount of attention from parents when they’re home,” Willard said. “Now it’s like, ‘No, Mom or Dad or whoever is really busy right now and can’t give you that attention.'”

Wanting a parent’s attention could be the reason behind a meltdown or more challenging behavior, he added. And when parents are stressed out and impatient, they’re more likely to snap at their kids, which creates a vicious cycle.

“[Acting out may be] normal for kids, especially when they’re not as verbal,” Alvord said. “[Younger kids] can’t necessarily or clearly articulate their feelings. Often it comes out in acting out.”

As of late, children are presented with new developmental challenges as well.

They’ve learned how to be bored for short periods of time at home in between school days, activities and social time, but not for hours on end. They know how to manage frustrations and boredom in the classroom but not on Zoom.

These changes pile up on kids and their reactions are relatively normal, Willard said.

“At this point, just assume that what’s underneath it is sadness,” Willard added. “It’s not personal, and they’re not doing it to drive you crazy or to ruin your phone call or screw up your dinner plans or anything like that.

“They’re doing it because they’re sad, they’re lonely; maybe they’re hungry or tired. They’re really feeling out of control.”

At the same time, parents should watch for and question recurring behaviors — isolation, poor sleep, perpetual misbehavior — as potential signs of something more serious going on, such as depression, anxiety or attention issues. In that case, contacting a therapist or psychiatrist for virtual appointments with the child or parent might help.

Helping kids cope

If at the end of a tantrum a child admits what’s really wrong, that’s a great moment because it means that he or she trusts the parent, Willard said. But the goal is improving the time it takes to get from tantrum to admission from 40 minutes to five minutes.

Parents can try to connect with their child by validating his feelings, Willard suggested. Jump in and say you’re there if he needs a hug; tell him you love him and that you understand this situation is so hard.

Ask the child what he was thinking and feeling at the time so you can get to know his triggers, Alvord recommended.

“I think as parents we can check in more and say, ‘How’s it going? Are you feeling OK right now? What are you looking forward to doing today? When do you want to set up a FaceTime with your friends later today?'” Willard added.

Parents can also help children become more comfortable with what’s not currently available to them by focusing on what’s going well and what they can control. But still be honest with them about the pandemic, lest you lose their trust, Alvord said. Just don’t let children catastrophize everything.

“Part of what you can do to cope is figure out the areas they’re most missing and how as a parent you can sort of orchestrate to help them get those connections with friends, a cousin, relatives and whoever else,” Alvord recommended. “Then they’re more relaxed physically, more engaged and feeling better.”

In that way, though their social lives aren’t the same, kids can feel that some aspects of life are predictable, safe and worth looking forward to.

Lessons in emotional intelligence

Learning emotional intelligence is a key part of growing up, and it’s important to navigating this difficult time.

It’s a type of intelligence that enables someone to “process emotional information and use it in reasoning and other cognitive activities,” according to the American Psychological Association.

Proposed by US psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in 1989, it comprises four abilities: to perceive and assess emotions accurately; to access and express emotions when they aid understanding of the situation; to comprehend emotional language and make use of the information; and to regulate one’s own and others’ emotions to foster personal growth and well-being.

Everyone needs these skills to be successful in their personal and professional lives, and parents can use children’s heated or low moments to build those abilities.

“It starts early,” Alvord said. “We have to learn to tolerate a certain amount of distress and moderate our emotions because life is full of lots of little distresses.”

Start by naming the emotions that arise in the characters of books, favorite television shows or movies you expose your kids to, Willard suggested. Talk about and explain the feelings so that kids will soon be able to recognize and label their own emotions.

“Then they’re much more able to regulate their emotions and have that emotional intelligence that we want them to have,” he said.

Playing games such as I Spy, 20 Questions, Mother May I? or Simon Says can teach impulse control and build a child’s capacity to understand the perspectives and experiences of others. “They’re also good cognitive brain builders for kids when they do go back to school, to keep their brains kind of shaped with exercise,” Willard said.

Playtime is also a period for kids to relax with their parents, Alvord said, and they might share more then.

Continue conversations about feelings beyond the eruptive moments — at the end of the day, talk about emotions as they arise and ask children when they last felt a certain mood. And reinforcing the habit of sharing and talking through problems by modeling that behavior is key.

“I’m really interested in mindfulness so I’ll be playing with my son and I’m like, ‘This is getting really stressful. I’m going to take a few deep breaths,'” Willard said. “That kind of thing can start to conceptualize and teach kids as we’re modeling it that they also can manage it.”

As parents hold space for their children when they’re sad and work with them on productive expression, they should be patient with themselves and their kids.

“This is a really hard time for all of us, so don’t be too hard on yourself,” Willard said. Check in with your parent friends so you can all cope and manage together and take ideas from one another. If you need further assistance, call your child’s school or professional help, where counselors, social workers and social psychologists may be ready and waiting to help.

“Don’t be hesitant to reach out,” Willard advised.

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