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Kids acting up and out? It might not be what it seems!

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

6 min read

Kids fighting? Toddler tantrums on the rise? Think you’ve single-handedly raised the worst children on the planet?! 

Child covering their face with their hands

In these turbulent times, it's hard to process emotions and continue as we did before. Children have their own special ways of showing stress which can be misconstrued as naughty or 'bad' behaviour.

Are your little ones suddenly acting up or seem to have taken a sleep or potty training setback? Many children, without knowing all the details, are feeling some of the same upset adults are. They just tend to show it differently.

Spot the signs and symptoms, and find out what you can do to help.

1. Your child’s separation anxiety skyrockets

It’s very normal for toddlers around 12-36 months to have a big old cry when they sense a parent is about to leave - even if this is just you going to the kitchen. In normal separation anxiety, you'll notice that kids can more easily be distracted into calming down. This might not work anymore and you find you have a permanent small shadow around the house!

When a child is anxious, the attachment system ‘tells’ them to get as close to a parent or caregiver as possible in order to feel safe and be protected. Your child might also refuse to connect with anyone but you, wail at the smallest signs and react more intensely than normal.

This is a pretty understandable response to what have been dramatic changes to the home environment during lockdown.

2. Your child has a regression or other ‘setback’

Did you think you had finally nailed bedtime? Or waved goodbye to dummy dependency?!

Small children, and babies, pick up on their parents’ worries as well as things they see on television. Although they don't understand what the cause or information means, they translate adult emotions in other ways, which can look like regression.

One sign of anxiety in toddlers is that they seem to be going through some sort of progress rewind, and start acting younger than they really are. Your child might show this in a number of ways - suddenly refusing to self-feed, acting like a ‘baby’, or trying to get attention by any means possible.

3. Tantrums increase - and the volume dials up!

Not the most pleasant part of a pandemic, right?! We all know little children share their fury through the tantrum phase, but during times of stress, these escalate or take place in moments they didn’t before.

An enraged toddler can be a stressed toddler, so watch out for more frequent tempers, tears or tantrums. Caveat: it might be impossible to know if your child is just going through a stage or taking general strain.

4. Sleeping issues rear their head.

Many small children struggle to settle or sleep once down without at least one check-in from their parents. Sleep problems can be normal, but they can also be a sign of anxiety particularly if nightmares or bad dreams start ramping up.

It’s hard to know the difference, but worth watching out for and seeing if lockdown timelines correlate. To be fair, your own sleep has probably taken a knock of late!

5. Children who liked their siblings, now don’t. 

This is not a clear-cut symptom of angst. As children get a little older, they change their minds regularly about their younger or older siblings! However, if your kids were nice to their younger brother or sister before the pandemic, and now aren’t, this might be a sign of increasing frustration caused by confusion and stress.

How to help your child

Parent comforting a crying child

1. Give your child attention 

Children often process new or stressful experiences through play and positive, present attention from a loved one. The best protection (a.k.a resilience) a child has is through the relationship with you. Giving your child attention in this way is simple and can be broken down through the day as small chunks of time (10 minutes or more). Sit with your child and follow his or her lead.  Ask questions, join in with play and let things unfold in the way your child wants. 

2. It’s not you, it’s them

Many parents think their child’s upset is a failure on their part. The result of this is that a lot of us try and persuade a child their feelings are irrational or try to hurry them into a different emotional state.

Instead of doing this, allow your little children to feel what they feel, and simply mirror back to them you understand. Label emotions as children experience them. Phrases like ‘I can see you’re feeling...’ allow your child to feel seen and pass through emotions.

The important bit? Practice coping tools together, so it doesn’t become an endless feeling share without your child learning new coping methods.

3. Resume routines 

Children find reassurance and safety in routine. Do your best to return to consistency as we all adapt to an unfolding ‘new normal’. Strict lockdown had one set of rules - in which we all set up new routines. Although it’s tiresome, a fresh set is needed for children to more easily adjust back into outside life. 

4. Figure out your own feelings 

This one is a little more tricky. Juggling work, household chores, cooking, childcare is tough. It’s easy to lose sight of what we are actually feeling in a given day, not what we think we are. The reason it's important for us to get in tune with ourselves is that a child’s self-regulation starts with us.

This doesn’t mean you need to strive for zen. It's about checking in with yourself regularly, simply to become aware of your own emotional state. Awareness helps you not to automatically transfer your own feelings to your child. Take a minute to ground yourself when anxious or triggered and do some belly breathing.

If you’re exhausted, simply acknowledge it with self-compassion. We can’t help a child to co-regulate (calm down) if we are burnt out, and acting from a place of unconscious tension. Be kind to yourself. Whether it’s a pandemic, climate change, anti-racism riots or the new normal: life right now isn’t easy! 

While you're here

We’re super excited to have launched our new IOS parenting app - it’s ready for you to download! The EasyPeasy App is full of ideas to help you in meltdown moments or hacks to bring the play back to brushing teeth, getting dressed and more.

Enjoy shared moments and developmentally based games with your little ones - through the routines and chores of daily life! 

Download now!