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The Kids in Quarantine Are Acting Out. Here’s How to Help Them

Sleep regressions, tantrums, and bad behavior are all perfectly normal for kids in quarantine. Here's what to do about it.

Some lesser-known symptoms of the coronavirus include angry outbursts, staying up past bedtime, and insolence. With the reality of the COVID-19 quarantine having settled in, kids are doing what kids do — crying for help in the most in-your-face way possible. Regressions, tantrums, and acting out are normal parts of childhood — and can be expected to ramp up with the kids in quarantine. They can also be a clue that your child has an anxiety disorder. Here’s how to tell the difference — and to work them through a troubling time, no matter how severe their reaction. 

Sleep Regression

Under stress, your child may act as if they’ve taken a few steps backward in their development, most notably in how they’re sleeping. “Kids are struggling with things they had previously mastered,” says Lindsey Giller, a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. These regressions can happen during major life changes, such as bringing a baby sibling home from the hospital — or social distancing because of COVID-19. 

Children who haven’t had accidents in months may go back to wetting the bed. Some are being haunted by nightmares. Others may have difficulty falling and staying asleep. It’s understandable why your kid might have trouble sleeping soundly now, but there are steps you can take to fix their bedtime problems.

First, keep a steady routine. Send the kids to bed at the same time every night, and have them stick to a schedule for other nightly activities, such as changing into pajamas and brushing teeth, according to Children’s Wisconsin. To help drive it home, draw the step of the routine out on flashcards and have them put the cards into an envelope as they finish their nightly tasks — drinking milk, brushing teeth, reading three books, rocking, cuddling with a favorite stuffie.

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If bedwetting is the issue, don’t scold. Continue to help them as normal, such as by using an alarm to wake them up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Reward your kid when they get through the night without an accident, but don’t give them too much attention when they slip up.

If nightmares are plaguing your child, empower them. Try a technique to make them feel like they have control, such as a nightly chant to make the bad dreams go away. 

Tantrums

Minor inconveniences your child used to be fine with, like a different parent putting them to sleep, can spark a tantrum under stressful conditions. “Right now, everyone’s baseline anxiety is raised,” Giller says. Children’s ability to cope with slight changes in their routine can vanish with extra anxiety, and any little mishap can trigger an outburst. This bad behavior isn’t intentional. It’s a natural response for kids to show you they’re struggling.

What you should do when your kid throws a fit depends on why they’re acting up. They may need comfort if they’re sad or worried, but usually the best course of action is to ignore the tantrum. Once it starts, there’s not much you can do to stop it, though you can try getting low and close and talking through their emotions. After the tantrum passes, make sure your kid follows through on the task that sparked the tantrum, such as getting changed. As they recover, give plenty of hugs and reassurances.

One time notorious for sparking tantrums is transitions between activities. Keeping a strict routine can make the switch easier. Write out a schedule (with pictures) to help children keep track of the day’s plan, and give a warning several minutes before it’s time to switch gears to reduce the risk of an outburst.

Constant Crying

“Kids are responding to their experience of stress and anxiety,” Giller says. “They’re not sure how to deal with it in a different way, so they’re falling apart.” If your kid won’t stop crying, first identify what’s causing their tears. Crying can be a sign that something is seriously wrong, such as an injury or sickness. If your kid isn’t in physical pain, help them put a name to the emotions they’re feeling.

Once you know what’s on their mind (this might not come with the first few sets of tears), reassure your child that it’s okay to feel sad or upset or angry. Form a plan together to make them feel better, such as going on a walk or creating art to express their emotions. And if they’re crying over little things, don’t swoop in and fix their problem, which reinforces that a sob session gets them what they want, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

If your child is worried about COVID-19 in particular, give them reassurances, but don’t shield them from the truth. Provide age-appropriate facts and reaffirm that you will keep them safe and take care of them no matter what’s happening in the world.

Yelling and Defiance

What looks like defiant behavior may actually be a child’s attempt to escape a situation because it causes them stress. Anxiety provokes a fight or flight response, and kids that choose “fight” may appear oppositional and aggressive. Yet yelling, hitting, and other anger issues can be how a kid responds to feeling overwhelmed or being unable to control their emotions, according to the Child Mind Institute

Like other responses to anxiety, keeping a routine and discussing underlying feelings can calm these bad behaviors. In addition, point out silver linings to your kid’s quarantine schedule, such as being allowed more screen time, to keep them feeling positive. If your child is still on edge, have them try breathing exercises and practicing mindfulness to ground them in the moment. 

Withdrawal

One of the clearest signs your kid has a serious anxiety issue, Giller says, is withdrawal. Pulling back in this way may mean a child stops communicating with a person they have a strong relationship with or doesn’t participate in activities they previously liked to do.

To deal with a child’s retreat, try coaxing them out of their shell. Opening up about your own feelings can encourage them to do the same. If they stay withdrawn, it could be worth reaching out to a professional.

Anxiety Disorders vs. Stress Reactions

We’re all in a bit of a frenzy right now, so it can be difficult to decide when to seek professional help for your child. If anxiety gets in the way of your kid’s daily life — if they can’t participate in or take joy in activities appropriate for their age — or they feel overwhelmed, reach out for help. Track how many days symptoms occur for. Stress can make symptoms come and go over days or even weeks, but children with anxiety disorders show signs for longer periods of time. Even if your child doesn’t have an anxiety disorder, it can be worth speaking to a professional about how to deal with their extreme reactions to stress during COVID-19.

Though you’re spending almost all day with your child, don’t assume you know what they’re feeling. Build time into your schedule to check in and ask about their emotions, and don’t be afraid to share your own as a model.

Rather than offering solutions for problems in your child’s life that are causing them anxiety, let them sit in the discomfort of the situation. If they complain about being sad they can’t go play with friends, explain that you’re sad you can’t see your friends too, but it’s what you have to do right now to keep everyone safe. It won’t be like this forever. Working together and being honest, you’ll get through this as a family.