Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Are your kids backsliding with their behavior? That's normal during transitions -- especially now

Posted April 28, 2020 8:30 p.m. EDT

Photo by Tinuke Bernard on Unsplash

Ashley L. Witherspoon's four-year-old neighbor recently took off on her bike — alone. With her family hunkered down together at home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, her parents complained that the girl had become "so defiant."

To them, the behavior was frustrating. But to Witherspoon, a licensed clinical social worker and parent, it wasn't surprising at all.

It's not uncommon for kids to display behavior changes and backsliding during big transitions — whether it's a move to a new town, the birth of a sibling or, now, a pandemic that's completely shut down the world around them.

Increased temper tantrums, trouble sleeping, too much sleeping, poor appetite and falling back on old habits, such as bed wetting and refusing to to be alone, all are common. And it's not just toddlers and preschoolers who are switching up their actions and demeanor.

"We've had reports of teenagers wanting to keep their doors open at night, they don't want the lights off," said Witherspoon, who also is founder of Hand Made Dreams, which works to enhance the self-image and self-esteem of girls. "They want to know where mom and dad are going, if you are coming back and what time you're coming back."

With families stuck together 24/7, the pandemic has only put a spotlight on these behaviors as we all try to grapple with the stress and emotion of the time.

"COVID-19 kind of ramped everything up," Witherspoon said. "When we think about loss or even grief in that transition, we had no time to prepare. One day, kids were in school and the next day they were at home."

Kids, she said, "don't have the words to express what's really going on and, to be honest, sometimes adults don't either."

Regardless, when a child starts wetting the bed six months after they stopped or throwing themselves on the floor for a tantrum at age 6, it can be a lot for already stressed parents to handle.

"We are looking at our children and saying, 'What is wrong with you? Why are you acting out? Why are you talking back?'" she said.

When this happens, Witherspoon recommends parents take a deep breathe and fall back on the F.E.E.L. acronym. It stands for Feelings, Empathize, Express and Learn.

1. Acknowledge the feelings of the child

Talk to your child about the confusion, discomfort or apprehension that they may be experiencing, Witherspoon said.

2. Empathize and validate what they're saying.

"Maybe you can't, as a parent, understand the bed wetting, but you can empathize with the feelings attached to it," she said. "We've all been scared before. We've all been anxious before."

Witherspoon recommends connecting with the feelings, not the action or behavior.

"If you can take that perspective, I really believe that it creates a new level of understanding with your child," she said. "It's not an immediate fix, but it is opening a small doorway to lead to more conversations."

3. Express your own feelings and emotions

Adults are worried about a lot of things right now — from their family's health to their job to their ability to pick up essentials at the grocery store. Witherspoon said it's not necessary to dive into all of your anxieties with your child. "Just be very basic with your emotions," Witherspoon said.

It's OK to say that you're nervous and anxious and you don't know what's going to happen next. You can share that you're sad and you miss your work, co-workers and extended family. "It's very important for them to know what you're feeling," she said.

But you probably don't need to pour out that you are not sure how you'll be able to pay the bills, where to find toilet paper or what your health insurance coverage might look like after a job loss.

4. Learn a new routine.

Now that he's at home, Witherspoon's own three-year-old has a new routine for himself that starts with breakfast, play dough time and a regular call with his preschool teacher. After nap, there's a wagon ride. "It's so nice," Witherspoon said. "He is very excited about what we're going to do."

Kids find security in routine because they know what's happening next. "That is just vital in this pandemic," she said. "Although we have no control over the larger layers of this whole process, what we can do is have control over how we go about our day-to-day. That routine can definitely temper some of those behaviors that you're seeing."

Witherspoon, a North Carolina native who recently moved to Atlanta, is scheduled to host the Hand Made Dreams Summit at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh on Aug. 22. The one-day experience, which was rescheduled from April 19, will celebrate young ladies, ages 7 and up, while providing parents and guardians with the tools they need to support their development and growth.