Many of us-parents and children alike-have hit a wall. Children are regressing. They miss their friends and their toys and their routines and (for those who are out of the city) their primary homes. They are not sleeping. They are having tantrums. They are separation anxious even though you are never out of their sight. They are saying mean things and hitting their siblings. They may even be saying that they are bad and should be “thrown in the garbage.” They are lethargic and/or hyperactive and moody and eating in weird ways and refusing to go outside even when they are allowed. They have tummy aches and want school but cry when it’s time to Zoom. They are suddenly terrified of monsters and refuse to go to the bathroom because of the octopus that might be living in your toilet bowl.
WHERE DID MY INDEPENDENT HAPPY CHILD GO?
One way to help make sense of your child’s behavior at this moment is to imagine that Mother Nature has put us all in a big collective TIME OUT. As with most time outs, this one is not going so well. We are deeply dysregulated. We are scared and mad and sad and lonely and want our toys back. We can’t make sense of how or why we landed here, and it already feels like it’s been a billion years and we have no idea when it will stop. Everything we have known to orient ourselves in the world has collapsed. We are lashing out at the people who are trying to comfort us. We cannot get our bearings, and all the normal tools we had to soothe ourselves are not working. We have no idea what is happening next. We just want this to end so we can get out and go play again. We are a mess. And that is the adult version.
The fact that young children are not reacting well to this state of being should NOT surprise us. It is normal. There is nothing wrong with your children other than the fact that they, like you, are overwhelmed by anxiety and losses and big feelings that they cannot name. They have even fewer emotional tools to cope than we do, so they (like most of us) are struggling. Expecting that they will “behave better” will make it worse and will be frustrating for all of you. None of us are at our best when we are in time out.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT FROM MY CHILD NOW?
You can expect that they will struggle. There were things that they could do before (emotionally speaking) that they will not be able to do now. They will be clingier and needier and grumpier and have more tantrums. They may be separation anxious, even if they never were before. Why? There has been so much loss (of routines and caregivers and basic touchstones of life) that they will be worried that you too will disappear. Separation anxiety is adaptive. Children want to stick close for a feeling of safety. They will need to be comforted more than usual. Their frustration tolerance will be WAY lower than it was. Expect that whatever challenging behaviors they may have had before this pandemic will now show up more often and be exponentially more challenging.
As parents, we need to stop expecting the highest functioning/most mature to date versions of our children. The only positive outcome of a time out is self- regulation. The goal is for the child to stop freaking out over the blue cup or the truck or the wrong shaped noodle or the annoying sibling who just knocked down the Lego castle. Just to state the obvious again, your child will NEVER be his or her best self during a time out. Your 4-year-old son will not do math flashcards or clean up his toys or be kind to his younger sister. Your 5-year old daughter will not suddenly learn to read or play nicely with her cousin or say thank you for her new tutu that she just threw in the garbage. We would not have expected them to do any of those things during a time out back in January, so we should not expect it now.
WILL THEY EVER GO BACK TO NORMAL?
None of us know what the long-term emotional outcome of this pandemic will look like. But we do know that children are resilient. If they are safe and feel loved and have all their basic needs met they will be ok. But for now, they are anxious
just like you are. They CANNOT be expected to function in all they ways they used to because they too are disoriented. We may long for the old versions of our children, when they were more independent/happier/better behaved/slept through the night etc., but we cannot try to steady ourselves by making our children “go back to the way they were before.” We can only hold the version that is in front of us.
HOW DO WE HELP THEM REGULATE?
PUT YOUR OWN OXYGEN MASK ON FIRST
When my children were little, I dismissed the airline stewardess’ instructions to “put your own oxygen mask on first” as absurd. I thought, “there is zero chance I would put my own mask on first. I would rather put my kids’ masks on first and pass out than put mine on first.” That being said, there is wisdom in this practice. Children are sponges. They take their emotional cues from you. If you are anxious, then they will be anxious too. If you are preoccupied and disconnected from them, then they will act out and demand your attention. The best way to help your children regulate is to stay as calm and connected to them as you can.
Every recommendation for parents includes the importance of structure and routines. It is true that routines are helpful, but I would suggest that you SOFTEN the edges of these routines. The ones that matter at this time are closer to rituals than routines. They include meals and bath time and stories and snuggling at bedtime. Do you really need to fight with them about getting dressed in “school clothes” when you have worn the same pair of sweatpants for 7 weeks? Children do need to know what to expect, but they don’t need to know what to expect in a month-they need to know what to expect after breakfast.
Most importantly, your children need the steadiest version of you that you can manage in each moment. They need you to be as attuned to them as possible. They need you to do the best you can every day and to understand that they are doing the best they can too. They need you to notice that learning to ride a bike is a VERY BIG DEAL and would not have happened at 1pm on a Wednesday if they had been in school. There is joy to be found during this time. Your children need you to find these moments with them so you can hold them together. It is in these moments of connection that we can begin to find our bearings and to make meaning. Perhaps that is the lesson that we will all learn from this time out.
Alison Locker, PhD
Dr. Locker is a clinical psychologist with a specialty in parenting and early childhood. She spent a decade working in Manhattan preschools and is now in full time private practice in Tribeca. She joined Little House Calls in 2018.