Family, Kids & Relationships

Decoding Your Kids’ Behavior in This Time of Uncertainty

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Kids are great at showing us when something is off with them, but they’re not always great at telling us what it is. Their signals to us will vary by age and of course, by individual. Right now our kids are facing quite a lot of disruption to their routines and lots of uncertainty about the immediate future… and they’re also watching the adults in their lives navigate similar challenges. 

Some degree of behavior change is certainly to be expected as we negotiate new routines and restrictions. And yet it’s also important to take notice of any behaviors that might signal anxiety, sadness, depression and other feelings they may not be able to name. Here are some behaviors that you might be seeing in kids of different ages, what those behaviors might signal and some suggestions for supporting your kiddos in healthy ways.

No matter if your child is a toddler or a teenager, you might notice:

Seeking reassurance. Perhaps your child is asking for more reassurance in general, sharing worries about their safety or that of their loved ones, or even asking about death. They might also seek reassurance in physical ways, like checking in with you constantly throughout the day or throwing a fit when you try to end an activity you’re doing together so you can tackle something else. These kinds of worries are often an indicator of heightened anxiety. 

What you can do: Remember that kids will interpret our non-verbal signals. So, when your kids are around, try to be as relaxed as possible—be aware of your posture, your facial expressions, even how you are breathing (this is great for your own stress and anxiety, too). They’ll take their cues from our behavior—even when we think they aren’t watching, they are!  Likewise, stay aware of kids’ exposure to the news. It’s not just about what they see on the TV—they might see you checking news or social media on your phone (and hear you talking to other adults about your anxieties) and make their own interpretations about what your anxiety means for them. 

Finally, talk to them about the uncertainty they’re facing in their lives. Their worlds are largely centered around routines and schedules, and all of that is completely different right now. We might not have reassuring answers for all their questions—Will summer camp be open? When will I get to see my friends again? What will school look like in the fall?—and it’s OK to say, “We just don’t know yet what’s going to happen.” But simply opening the discussion and letting your kids know you hear and understand their concerns will go a long way.

If you have a toddler, you might be seeing: 

Regressive behaviors. It’s normal for children to show some signs of regression in times of transition. Maybe your child has gone back to thumb-sucking, whining, or they are suddenly being very clingy. Maybe they’re having way more meltdowns than usual. This may be even more pronounced during times when your attention is particularly divided (like, when you and your partner both have a 10 a.m. meeting from your “home office” and your kiddo is left vying for your time). Some of these regressions are just your child’s way of reminding you that change is hard, for all of us. 

What you can do: First, make sure your little one knows that you notice, and care about, their concern or discomfort. Young kids have low impulse control and are easily overwhelmed, which is completely developmentally appropriate—but can result in some (let’s admit it) kind of annoying behavior. It helps to remember that they’re not trying to be defiant or mean, they just need some extra help and empathy when they reach their limit on coping with the changes and stress around them.

As best you can, acknowledge their request for your attention, being careful not to shame them for the behavior. Instead of focusing on the regressive behavior, be sure to give them praise for positive behaviors whenever you see them, to reinforce the behaviors you want to see more of. And, of course, do your best to help them navigate uncertain times with some structure. It’ll help your kiddo adjust knowing they’ll always have your undivided attention at certain times of the day.

Parents of elementary aged kids might notice:

Distractibility. You might notice that your elementary aged child is having difficulty staying focused or paying attention. Sure, some of this is just how it goes sometimes, but your child may not actually be disengaging for the reasons you think (like boredom). Kids, like adults, appreciate some level of “sameness” in their lives, but so much is still shifting for our kids. So, if your child isn’t engaging in their virtual learning, they might just be missing the predictability of their school days. Or, they might be missing their friends and their sadness is translating into withdrawal from activities. 

What you can do: You know your kid best, so trust your instincts about what’s going on. Maybe you set a schedule for virtual learning a couple of weeks ago but it’s just not working. Talk it through together and see what ideas they have for creating some new routines. Or maybe they could use some help from you in getting ready to learn. A lot of kids aren’t moving around as much as they’re used to, so how about challenging them to 50 jumping jacks before sitting down to learn to get the wiggles out? Still disengaging? Set up a daily or weekly meet-up between your kid and a classmate so they can study together, and look forward to some regular connection with a friend.

Tweens and teens may show some of these same behaviors as younger kids. You also might notice:

Sleep changes or “back-talk.” If you’re the parent of a teenager, you already know that sleep is a very big deal, and chances are that it’s already been the subject of a tug-of-war in your house. Lack of adequate sleep—or major disruptions in their sleep schedules—can really affect kids’ moods. With fewer obligations and restrictions on their time these days, your teen might be flexing some independence by keeping a sleep schedule that is far different than yours. Similarly, an increase in defiant behavior, “back-talk” or just a general bad attitude could be related to sleep disruptions, or it could be that age-appropriate desire for independence rearing its head.

But note, if you’re noticing your teen is having trouble sleeping, whether that’s falling asleep at night or wanting to sleep all day, it could be a sign of depression or a shift in mood that you’ll want to pay attention to.

What you can do: Though they may push back against too many restrictions, it’ll help to get them off their devices an hour before bedtime and to discourage the midnight snack (it can postpone sleep even further). Maybe you can incentivize them to head to bed a little earlier by scheduling something fun together the next morning. Set a date to make their favorite breakfast together at a certain time, or plan a mid-morning bike ride together. It’ll do you both some good.

If you think they’re dealing with a case of the sleep-all-day blues, start a conversation about it in a non-judgmental way. During the conversation, ask them what ideas they have to get their sleep and/or attitude back on track, and what support they need to work through the feelings they’re struggling with. Having a say in the rules, consequences, and rewards in the house gives older kids a feeling of control, which can help satisfy their growing need to become more independent.

Truly, if you notice any of the above behaviors, you can talk openly with kids about what might be underneath their behavior in a way that demonstrates your acceptance of their feelings. It’s a great time to validate what they are feeling, to show them lots of patience and to help them feel connected to their loved ones—even from afar. 

The kinds of routines we had a few months ago aren’t realistic right now. But what kinds of new routines can you put in place? What fun rituals can be new parts of your kiddo’s day that they can look forward to? Choose a couple of things you’ll do together each day so you’ll have a built in time of the day to check in. They’ll love your undivided attention, plus this will give a bit of structure to the day. 

Want to learn more? This article from the Child Mind Institute lays out some areas to watch for in kids of different ages and some helpful resources for dealing with some of the challenges facing your family during this time. Think your child is dealing with loneliness or grief? Check out our recent interview with Clinical Social Worker and Therapist, Rebecca Weston to get some suggestions on how to help.

Andrea is a mindfulness and yoga teacher, as well as an independent education consultant in Washington D.C. with expertise in child development, social-emotional learning and personalized learning. Andrea formerly lead a $500 million program for the U.S. Department of Education but still talks about her first job as a high school dropout prevention counselor.