Challenging child behaviour during quarantine – Expert Reaction

Kiwi parents and caregivers will likely be facing their own challenges caring for children as New Zealand enters the second week of nationwide lockdown.

The SMC asked experts to comment on what abnormal or challenging behaviour parents and caregivers might face from their children under the stressful conditions, and the best way to handle them.

Associate Professor Annette Henderson, Principal Investigator of the Early Learning Lab, School of Psychology, University of Auckland:

“From a very early age, children are sensitive to others’ emotions/emotional states. As such, being able to effectively manage your own stress and anxiety levels will have positive flow-on effects of reducing your child’s stress/anxiety. Engaging in two-way conversations with your child during which you each share how you are feeling will help reduce everyone’s stress.

“However, some children are not able to discuss their feelings, either because they aren’t comfortable doing so, or they might be too young to do so. In these instances, parents might notice seemingly sudden changes in their child’s mood and behaviour. For example, a child who senses their parent’s anxiety but is unable to communicate their own concerns with words, might have a behavioural outburst (i.e. tantrum or “acting out”), or may even become more cuddly than usual and be upset if you leave the room even just for a brief moment.

“If this happens with your child, taking a moment to stop what you are doing and connect with your child will help calm the storm that is brewing inside.”

No conflicts of interest.

Dr Kirsty Ross, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, Massey University:

This is the abridged version of Dr Ross’ expert reaction. Her full list of recommendations is available on SciBlogs.

“Children and young people can respond differently in times of distress. This also varies by age and developmental stage, with younger children having more magical and imaginative thinking, and older children having more awareness and knowledge of the issues our communities are facing (which brings up a lot of emotions for them). So, depending on age and temperament, children can show their distress and adjustment through different behaviours and emotions. These include:

  • they can become a bit clingier and need more attention
  • others can become irritable, grumpy and on edge
  • others may regress in their behaviour (such as starting to wet the bed, wanting to sleep with their parents or talking in a more childlike way)
  • some may be more anxious and express a lot of fear and worries, for their health and the health of others close to them
  • others can try to seek a lot of information (ask a lot of questions, reassurance-seeking), in the pursuit of trying to understand and feel secure
  • some may even pretend nothing is different (avoid talking and thinking about it) as it is too difficult and scary

“All of these responses are attempts to feel secure, gain a sense of control, and manage emotions in the face of a very difficult situation for everyone – including adults. Noticing any changes in your child’s behaviour, emotions and interactions with others is vital – pointing out that you have noticed a change, and asking more about it helps children know that in the midst of a crisis, there are adults paying attention to them, looking out for them, and keeping boundaries around them, which helps them feel more secure. Acknowledging this is new and challenging for all of us is important; being kind to ourselves and each other as we adjust is key. Feeling a sense of some sort of control and retaining some familiarity in our days helps us gain a sense of direction. In the midst of many choices being removed for us, having some choices during the day is still important – even if it is what jersey you wear today, or what order you do your schoolwork in!

“Validating children’s emotions and empathising helps children feel understood and less alone which helps reduce their distress. This involves helping them name how they are feeling, understand that these feelings are in response to a very new situation, normalising those feelings and ensuring that people know no feeling is ‘wrong’ in this situation. But it is also vital that you keep some things predictable and consistent – including having chores, the same family rules and values, routines and consequences for behaviour. Validating and empathising with feelings does not mean children have free reign to behave as they please. Some testing behaviours can be a child’s way of checking out whether the rules still apply and genuinely, they feel reassured to know that breaking the rules means the same consequences!

“As the initial novelty of the situation wears off and people’s tolerance wears thin, signs of distress or discomfort can emerge, and so keeping the lines of communication and connection going with your children is really important as they may adjust well initially (with some excitement and even enjoyment of having extra time at home), but find it more challenging as time goes on.

“Finally, if you as an adult are struggling, please remember to engage in good self-care, ask for support, talk to your friends and whānau and be kind to yourself. In order to help our young people, you need to have the energy and resources to be able to respond to their needs and that means looking after yourself too!”

No conflicts of interest

Dr Melanie Woodfield, Clinical Psychologist, Health Research Council Clinical Research Training Fellow, University of Auckland, comments:  

“It’s no surprise that many children will be demonstrating challenging behaviour in this season. Changes to routines, an abrupt disconnection from play dates and playground trips, parents who – while physically present – may be preoccupied and less emotionally available. And, developmentally, many young children will be struggling with the intangible, invisible nature of the threat we’re facing. We’re suddenly being asked to do things that don’t make sense to a young child who struggles with abstract reasoning – washing hands to keep ourselves safe? Staying away from grandma to keep her safe? Developmentally egocentric young children also often assume that if a parent is anxious or upset, it’s due to something that they have done or said. Unable to verbally articulate a question to clarify things, a tantrum builds…

“The internet is awash with tips and strategies, and many parents are currently being bombarded with very well-intentioned emails from schools or childcare centres, with lists of links to sites with dozens of documents. It can feel overwhelming to even know where to start reading. Or perhaps a parent feels driven to read and re-read countless online resources with a desire to regain a sense of control, of the uncontrollable.

“In most cases, when parents are struggling, it’s not through a lack of knowledge. Sit a parent down with a cuppa in a calm space and ask them to describe the best way of responding to a toddler tantrum, and most parents can give a sensible answer. For example, most parents are aware that the optimal parenting style involves a balance of both warmth and firmness. But ask them to apply that intellectual knowledge after a long day of juggling Zoom meetings and children’s needs, alongside their own lurking latent anxiety, and it’s another story.

“Rather than listing yet more suggestions, let’s acknowledge that parents are not computers, rationally dispensing the appropriate skill at an opportune moment. Rather, effective parenting is the product of several factors. These include the support available to parents, the attitudes and ideas parents have about their role as parent (“a good parent would…”), about their child, and about the situation they’re facing and ability to cope. And when parents are under stress, they’re prone to thinking errors or cognitive distortions, that are intricately related to their mood and ability to regulate emotions, and consequently the effectiveness of their parenting behaviour.

“But one tip, if I may. When children act out, pause, and ask yourself, ‘What is the function of this behaviour?’ In other words, what is ‘underneath’ this? Which need(s) is/are unmet at the moment? Remember, you don’t need to make it all better (in fact, you can’t). You may just need to validate, for them and for yourself, that it’s hard right now.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Melanie Woodfield is employed part-time as a Clinical Psychologist in government-funded Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. She receives research funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

Dr Hiran Thabrew, Child Psychiatrist and Paediatrician, University of Auckland and Auckland District Health Board, comments:

“Recognise difficult behaviour and whether it is new (e.g. acting out) or a return to old behaviour (e.g. bed wetting or having nightmares).

“Talk with your child about how they are feeling:

  • Find out what they know in an age-appropriate way (e.g. for younger children, ask if they have heard grown-ups talking about a sickness that’s going round; or for older children, if people are talking about coronavirus).
  • Follow their lead – if they want to talk a lot, let them. If they don’t then respect their wishes – they will ask more when they are ready.
  • Acknowledge their distress about the things they are missing (especially social contact for teenagers)

“Develop strategies to make them feel safer and happier:

  • Design and keep a more regular weekly routine/schedule (this gives them a sense of predictability and safety).
  • Set up a daily check-in system to see how they are going and to allow them to express their feelings about things in an open, but time-limited way.
  • Talk about things they can do to feel more in control and keep themselves safe including washing their hands regularly, eating and sleeping well to stay healthy, and doing nice things for other people, especially those they may not see in person for a while (such as grandparents).

“Look after your own mental health:

  • Develop a menu of self-care activities and use these.
  • Continue to use prescribed therapy techniques/medications during this relatively stressful period.
  • Model healthy coping behaviour including self-care, hand-washing and talking about feelings.

“If your child’s behaviour does not improve with the listed steps, seek professional advice:

  • Call 1737 or look for local supports via the website.
  • Speak with your GP.
  • If you are worried about the safety of your child/family, contact your local child and adolescent mental health service via your local hospital.”

No conflict of interest.