How to Deal With Your Child's Emotional Behavior by Age Group

Why Your Kids Are Acting Out and How You Can Help

Sad BIPOC child talking to her mom

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Kids of all ages can misbehave, act out, and have sleep issues as a result of a disruption in their routine. Most people don't like their routine upended, but adults are better able to find creative ways to manage chaos and continue on with life. This is not always as easy for kids.

Since hiding in the bathroom from your child for more than five minutes is not an option, you might be wondering how you can teach your child to manage their emotions, while also helping them feel calm and secure. 

Abigail Gewirtz, PhD, Clinical Psychologist

We’re all creatures of habit, but for kids, in particular, routines and the structure of everyday life provide predictability in a life where they don't have a lot of control.

— Abigail Gewirtz, PhD, Clinical Psychologist

Kids' sense of control comes from relying on structure and routine, and when those things are gone, it's a lot harder for them to cope. With that in mind, here are some specific behaviors (by age group) to be aware of and the best ways to help them manage their emotions and feel better.

Toddlers

When faced with very stressful and traumatic events, clinical psychologist Abigail Gewirtz, PhD, reminds us that kids can regress or act younger than their age. Younger kids, in particular, can get more clingy.

“Toddlers and preschoolers are just learning about managing emotions (i.e., self-regulation), and for the most part, they rely on parents to manage those big emotions,” for them, explains Gewirtz.

That's why toddlers have tantrums. “They don't yet know what to do when big feelings crash over them, which can be even worse when kids and their parents are stressed,” Gewirtz says. Parents can help take control and guide toddlers in managing their emotions.

Maintain a Strict Schedule

If there is any age that needs a strict schedule, it’s toddlers and preschool-aged kids. Whenever possible, try to follow a similar schedule and routine most (if not all) days of the week, especially when it comes to mealtime, bedtime, and activities.

That said, it’s OK to have days when success is achieved if your toddler gets out of their pajamas.

Stay Calm 

Toddlers and preschool-age kids are a lot smarter and more intuitive than we often give them credit for. They are good at sensing when parents are upset and anxious, so it’s critical that we model ways to manage our emotions, says Gene Beresin, MD, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Mass General Hospital.

“When parents control their own anxiety and emotions, their kids (of all ages), but especially toddlers, respond positively,” he says.

Parents need to seek support from friends, partners, and family and rely on whatever healthy ways they typically use to manage their emotional reactions. 

Give a Little Extra TLC

We can all use a little extra TLC at times, but younger kids, especially, need positive attention and close time with parents. “This may mean more cuddling, reading stories, drawing, playing games, and even sleeping in the same room. This kind of closeness is reassuring and calming,” says Beresin. 

School-Aged Children

Elementary-aged kids span a wide range of ages from 6 to 12 years old, which includes a lot of developmental stages. Like their younger siblings, elementary-aged kids also need structure, especially since they are at the stage of life when they are learning new skills, trying to understand themselves and how the world works, and looking for ways to fit into a peer group. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, your school-age kids may have struggled with acting out and having tantrums—sometimes atypical for them under normal circumstances.

“When the pandemic prevents them from the needed orderliness of routines in daily life, prevents them from learning new skills and mastering even basic knowledge about the world, and thwarts their early and important peer relationships, they become anxious, irritable, and sad,” explains Beresin.

"A key to understanding the school-age child is an appreciation of their need for developing a sense of mastery, even though their mastery lacks the nuances of adolescence," says Beresin. Children need to feel that they are in control, and things around them are orderly and in control.

Follow a Schedule 

It only takes a few days for elementary-age kids to be completely thrown off by a lack of routine or schedule. We all saw that first-hand when our kids had to adjust to remote learning during the pandemic.

If they are homebound during the school year for an extended period due to illness or quarantine, try to structure their day as similar to school as possible. For example, you can create a task sheet that includes work assigned from their teacher, outdoor time, reading, and free time.

Space tasks out so their day looks similar to a school day. Post the schedule in a central location and ask them to check off the tasks as they are finished. This gives them a sense of control and allows them to know what is happening throughout the day, which helps them manage their emotions and stay calm. 

Avoid Suggesting a Reason for Their Worry

It’s not uncommon for parents or other caring adults to suggest something or raise a question (out of concern) with a young child that results in worry. For example, if you ask a young child if they are afraid of getting the coronavirus, you have just introduced the idea that they should be afraid of getting coronavirus.

So, instead, in a calm moment (not during a tantrum!), ask if something is bothering them. Follow up by asking what it is, and if they need help describing it, suggests Cara Natterson, MD, founder of Worry Proof Consulting and author of Decoding Boys.

If your younger child asks you a big question like “Will you die if you get coronavirus?” you might respond with your own question, such as “What made you ask me that?”.

“So often, a child is not asking what we think they are asking, and clarifying by asking what made them conjure a particular question allows us to narrow the scope of our answer,” Natterson says.

Allow for Screen Time

We all struggle with keeping our kids off of screens. But sometimes it’s the only way kids can communicate with each other.

“Since school-age kids need to feel included and part of a group, encourage group chats, FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom meetings,” if your child is unable to connect with peers in person, says Beresin. Depending on your situation, designate a specific amount of time each day or a few times a week for them to connect with friends. Be in the same room with them when they chat online.

They should also be encouraged to talk to and spend time with relatives, cousins, grandparents, and others with whom they are close. 

Adolescents

While you may not see your older kids as much as younger ones, they still struggle with challenges and disruptions in their life and work to make sense of how they feel.

“Adolescents' jobs are to develop their own identity, test out who they want to be, and immerse themselves in the outside world with friends, work, school, and other social activities,” says Gewirtz. Teenagers may try to flout the rules (like meeting secretly with friends) because of the "invincibility hypothesis,” or the idea that dangers outside won't happen to them.

“When their future is uncertain, they react with anxiety, depression, and irritability,” she says. They may even see no hope for the future and that their life is ruined. “This results in over-reacting emotionally, and they may become isolated, frustrated, demoralized, or just plain bored,” Gerwitz adds. Our role as parents is to support them. 

Talk, Listen, and Be Open

Now, more than ever, your teens need you to talk them through different issues, like keeping up with their school work and even future planning. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in New York City, says we need to remind our kids that eventually, they can get past any crisis and we'll be there to help them.

“This is also a great time to help them develop a greater sense of empathy and bond with them as you reassure them that they will be okay, and you will support them,” she adds. Hafeez says to be patient with teens as they process change in their lives.

“In their adolescent years, children need that interaction with peers, and through their experiences, they start carving out who they are as people,” she says.

Ask Direct Questions

For older kids, Natterson says more direct questioning can be very helpful. “Remember that around middle school, many kids begin to consider mortality for the first time in any personal or profound way—of course, some do this earlier and some later, but you will want to gauge where your kid is at,” she says. 

If you know something is bothering your teen, go ahead and ask them about it specifically. They may feel relieved that you have started the conversation and offered an ear to listen.

Remember All Kids Need a Routine

Sure, your older kids may need (and ask for) more space and privacy, but they also require routines and responsibilities. Whenever possible, adhere to bedtimes, wake-up times, meals, and other family rituals.

Invite your teen to go for a walk, bike ride, or just chill on the couch together. Then, make this part of your daily routine. 

Allow Them Time to Connect With Friends

Social life is incredibly important for your teenagers, and they benefit significantly from maintaining contact with friends and family through social media, chat lines, online groups, and other means of staying connected,” explains Beresin.

Depending on your situation, designate a specific amount of time each day or a few times a week for them to connect with friends. 

A Word From Verywell

We all struggle with emotions at times. Parents play a significant role in helping kids of all ages understand and manage their emotions.

When families spend time together, it creates an ideal situation to teach your children and teens ways to cope with their feelings. But as you learn more about the best ways to support your children, remember to also take care of yourself.

Exercise, fuel your body with healthy food, talk with friends and family, get adequate rest, and ask for help when you need it. You’re not alone. If you’re struggling with your own mental health or you have concerns about a family member, talk to your doctor or a therapist.

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