Coping with challenging child behaviour during quarantine

Opinion: Dr Melanie Woodfield and Dr Hiran Thabrew comment on what abnormal or challenging behaviour parents and caregivers might face from their children under the stressful conditions of lockdown, and the best way to handle them.

It’s no surprise that many children will be demonstrating challenging behaviour in this season. Image: Pexels

Dr Melanie Woodfield - "Parents are not computers"

It’s no surprise that many children will be demonstrating challenging behaviour in this season. Changes to routines, an abrupt disconnection from play dates and playground trips, parents who – while physically present – may be preoccupied and less emotionally available. And, developmentally, many young children will be struggling with the intangible, invisible nature of the threat we’re facing. We’re suddenly being asked to do things that don’t make sense to a young child who struggles with abstract reasoning – washing hands to keep ourselves safe? Staying away from grandma to keep her safe? Developmentally, egocentric young children also often assume that if a parent is anxious or upset, it’s due to something that they have done or said. Unable to verbally articulate a question to clarify things, a tantrum builds…

The internet is awash with tips and strategies, and many parents are currently being bombarded with very well-intentioned emails from schools or childcare centres, with lists of links to sites with dozens of documents. It can feel overwhelming to even know where to start reading. Or perhaps a parent feels driven to read and re-read countless online resources with a desire to regain a sense of control, of the uncontrollable.

In most cases, when parents are struggling, it’s not through a lack of knowledge. Sit a parent down with a cuppa in a calm space and ask them to describe the best way of responding to a toddler tantrum, and most parents can give a sensible answer. For example, most parents are aware that the optimal parenting style involves a balance of both warmth and firmness. But ask them to apply that intellectual knowledge after a long day of juggling Zoom meetings and children’s needs, alongside their own lurking latent anxiety, and it’s another story.

Rather than listing yet more suggestions, let’s acknowledge that parents
are not computers, rationally dispensing the appropriate skill at an
opportune moment.

Rather, effective parenting is the product of several factors. These include the support available to parents, the attitudes and ideas parents have about their role as parent (“a good parent would…”), about their child, and about the situation they’re facing and ability to cope. And when parents are under stress, they’re prone to thinking errors or cognitive distortions, that are intricately related to their mood and ability to regulate emotions, and consequently the effectiveness of their parenting behaviour.

But one tip, if I may. When children act out, pause, and ask yourself, ‘What is the function of this behaviour?’ In other words, what is ‘underneath’ this? Which need(s) is/are unmet at the moment? Remember, you don’t need to make it all better - in fact, you can’). You may just need to validate, for them and for yourself, that it’s hard right now.

Dr Hiran Thabrew - "Develop strategies to make them feel safer and happier"

Recognise difficult behaviour and whether it is new (e.g., acting out) or a return to old behaviour (e.g., bed wetting or having nightmares).

Talk with your child about how they are feeling:

  • Find out what they know in an age-appropriate way. For younger children, ask if they have heard grown-ups talking about a sickness that’s going round; for older children, ask if people are talking about coronavirus.
  • Follow their lead – if they want to talk a lot, let them. If they don’t then respect their wishes – they will ask more when they are ready.
  • Acknowledge their distress about the things they are missing, especially social contact for teenagers.

Develop strategies to make them feel safer and happier:

  • Design and keep a more regular weekly routine/schedule. This gives them a sense of predictability and safety.
  • Set up a daily check-in system to see how they are going and to allow them to express their feelings about things in an open, but time-limited way.
  • Talk about things they can do to feel more in control and keep themselves safe including washing their hands regularly, eating and sleeping well to stay healthy, and doing nice things for other people, especially those they may not see in person for a while such as grandparents.

Look after your own mental health:

  • Develop a menu of self-care activities and use these.
  • Continue to use prescribed therapy techniques and medications during this relatively stressful period.
  • Model healthy coping behaviour, including self-care, hand-washing and talking about feelings.

If your child’s behaviour does not improve with the listed steps, seek professional advice:

  • Call 1737 or look for local supports via the Healthpoint website.
  • Speak with your GP.
  • If you are worried about the safety of your child/family, contact your local child and adolescent mental health service via your local hospital.

Dr Melanie Woodfield is a Clinical Psychologist, Health Research Council Clinical Research Training Fellow, and Doctoral Candidate from the Department of Psychological Medicine, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Dr Hiran Thabrew is a Medical Senior Lecturer from the Department of Psychological Medicine, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, and a Child Psychiatrist and Paediatrician at Starship Children's Hospital.

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Science Media Centre, Challenging child behaviour during quarantine – Expert Reaction, 2 April 2020.

Media contact

Gilbert Wong | Research Communications Manager
021 917 942