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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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many kids of all ages are misbehaving, acting out, and having sleep issues, all as a result of a disruption in their routine.

Most people don't like their routine disrupted, but adults are better suited to find creative ways to manage the chaos and continue on with life. This is not always as easy to do for kids.

Since hiding in the bathroom from your child for the rest of social distancing and quarantine 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

This 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, Gewirtz reminds us that kids can regress or act younger than they do typically, and 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,” explains Gewirtz.

That's why toddlers have tantrums. “Because 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,” she adds. 

Here are some ways 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 the most, 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. In fact, Beresin says they are good at sensing when parents are upset and anxious, so it’s critical that we model ways to manage our emotions.

“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 right now, but our younger kids, especially, need positive attention and more 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. 

“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 Gene Beresin, MD, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Mass General Hospital.

Because of this, many school-age kids will act out and have tantrums—sometimes atypical for them under normal circumstances.

"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. Here are the ways parents and other adults can help them regulate behavior and manage emotions as they start to master more skills and become more independent.

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.

If possible, try to structure their day similar to school. Create a task sheet that includes work assigned from their teacher, outdoor time, reading, and free time.

Space each task, 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!), Cara Natterson, MD, founder of Worry Proof Consulting and author of Decoding Boys, says to ask if something is bothering them, what it is, and if they need help describing it.

If your younger child asks you a big question like “Will you die if you get coronavirus?” Natterson says you may want to start by asking this question in return: “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 Extra Screen Time

We all struggle with keeping our kids off of screens. But right now, it’s the only way some 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,” 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 and be in the same room as they chat online.

They should also be encouraged to talk online or on FaceTime 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 are still struggling with a disruption in their life and trying 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. "That’s what makes this pandemic time so hard—they have no face-to-face school time, little work, no sports, and no peers."

During this time, Gewirtz says adolescents may try to flout the rules (like meeting secretly with friends and violating social distance rules) 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,” he 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. 

And when teens think about their lack of contact with friends and their independence being stifled, Beresin says their emotions and impulses take over.

Adolescents have a clearer picture of the world and how the pandemic is impacting their life. Because of that, 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.

While this crisis has turned out to be very disappointing for this age group, Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in New York City, says we need to remind our kids that eventually, they will get past this crisis.

“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.

Still, older teens will be losing out on a lot this year, so Hafeez says to be patient with them as they process the loss of important moments and adapt their expectations to this new reality.

“In their adolescent years, children need that interaction with peers, and through their experiences, they start carving out who they are as people, so continued social distancing will affect that aspect of their development,” she says.

The hope is that technology and family support will help mitigate this until this situation improves. 

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 when asking about a potentially fatal infection,” she says. 

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 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 Then 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 are all struggling with emotions during this time. Parents play a significant role in helping kids of all ages understand and manage their emotions.

And, with families spending more time together, this 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 in this 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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