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When children act out, it’s typically for a reason. We have seen a huge increase in behavior spikes, rigidity, and defiance in children as the pandemic continues to wage war on our patience. While schools are planning on reopening in some states, and in others remaining remote, I think it’s important to discuss why this change is exacerbating anxiety and depression in our society, and in our children.

We talked last week about cortisol, and how it affects the body and stress. With anxiety, there are a number of different neurotransmitter and brain structures that activate based on the anxiety you have. It can affect your breathing, thought patterns, and behaviors – and manifests differently for everyone.

In children, anxiety tends to be the culprit behind their negative behaviors. Currently, the lack of structure and parental “burnout” is taking a huge toll on our children. When there is such a shift in what was our daily “normal” (our social interactions, routines, etc.) we all feel a little out of sorts. But children, specifically, who lack evolved coping skills, will start to act out. This may look like hyperactivity, defiance, talking back, random tantrums, fixations on screens or preferred activities and overreacting to situations.

It is important to acknowledge that your child’s behavior could be a result of anxiety. In doing so, you can take the first steps to figure out a plan to “reset it and address it”.

First, validate and express their feeling. This helps them decrease their stress response and defense system, and helps them learn to put words to their feelings. So saying something like, “I get it. It’s very frustrating when something stops working.” Or, “Yes, I saw your sister take your toy. That is really difficult.” Then ask an open-ended question like, “What can we do about this?” Start to engage them in problem solving dialogue and you’ll help teach them how to navigate how to handle the emotion.

Then, re-examine the structure and the plan of your day. Using a paper or a white board, write out a general structure of the day. Allow your children to be part of the conversation, too. There is a power in knowing what is coming next, and feeling there is some part of their day which they have control over, especially with the unknown of the current state of our world.

Next, look at the boundaries and discipline you have set up in your home. Are there set rules? Are you consistently reinforcing them? Look to have at least 5 rules that focus on respect and kindness so that you are able to designate boundaries. Children are children, so it’s important to teach them to be their own person, but they need our guidance as they develop. Children who have no boundaries or who are given adult roles tend to act out more, often testing the limits.

Rebalance The Rainbow

We have a “Brain Health Rainbow” we utilize with families that we work with, and usually when behaviors are at an increase, the rainbow is out of whack. Re-evaluate the amount of screen time your kids are participating in, take note of their sleep habits and routine, notice diet changes, what might be affecting their environmental routine and consider the exercise and movement your child engages in everyday. Problem solve which areas need adjusting.

Start Therapy

This is a difficult time. The rate of anxiety and depression we are all feeling collectively is at an all time high. Most therapists are offering some form of virtual or safe office visits, as we are in our office. Don’t be afraid to reach out for a consultation to help your child. It is important they process their stress and feelings now. We’re lucky to be in a time where seeking help, guidance and advice is more normalized than ever. You can’t know what you aren’t able to articulate or understand. That’s where therapy comes in. Therapy provides education, a sounding board and most importantly, a lifeline for those who are struggling with emotional dysregulation and behavioral issues.

It’s also a hard time for many families, so beginning formal therapy may not be in the cards at the moment. If you are unable to start therapy, consider investing in some resources to help navigate mental health at home. Dawn Huebner created a great series called “What To Do When You Worry Too Much”.

Check out these other books:

Breathe Like A Bear: 30 Mindful Moments

Help Your Dragon Deal with Anxiety

And these anxiety activities:

The Worry Box

Loveliome Thumb Worry Stone

Me: A Fill-In Journal For Kids