Father holding rowdy child In these unprecedented times, we know many families are struggling – not only with social isolation, homeschooling and economic stress – but also with managing their children’s behavior. Whether your child struggled with disruptive behaviors prior to COVID-19 or if these challenges are new, we hope the following strategies will help provide you with some tools to reduce conflict and improve well-being in your family.

Many of the changes to our daily lives that came with COVID-19, such as shifts in routine, changes in academic instruction and separation from friends and loved ones, have been particularly impactful for children. For many, these changes have contributed to increased stress, which may present in children as defiance, tantrums, difficulty with transitions, arguing, irritability, withdrawal and clinging to caregivers.

Below are four strategies to consider when managing disruptive child behavior in the home environment.

Positive Attention

The goal of this strategy is to give attention for behavior you would like to increase and remove attention from behavior you want to decrease. First, catch your child being good with praise. Praise increases the positive behaviors you want your child to show, tells your child exactly what he or she did well, and makes everyone feel good! We recommend using specific praise: pair praise words such as “Good job” or “Thanks for” with the specific behavior you observed and want to see more of such as “putting your dishes in the sink.”

Some examples include “Thank you for sharing with your sister,” “Great job starting that task on your own,” and “I love it when you use your inside voice while I’m on the phone.” In addition to verbal praise, rewards can be used as positive reinforcement for children of all ages.

Next, ignore minor challenging behaviors. For minor behaviors such as sass, back talk, tantrums or whining, ignoring is purposefully removing your attention from the child, which includes your words, facial expression and body language. Once you start, stick with it. You must ignore your child's negative behavior until it stops – which can be challenging, and often, minor disruptive behaviors can get worse before they get better. With consistency, your child will start to learn more positive ways to get your attention. Follow up your "ignore" phase with praise for the positive target behavior as soon as it is demonstrated. Never ignore serious misbehavior or potentially harmful behavior such as physical aggression or destructive behavior.

Managing Big Emotions

Parents and caregivers also have an important role to play in helping children regulate big emotions. Be present with your child and validate their feelings. Validation is a powerful way to let your child know their feelings are OK and that you can help your child to manage their feelings safely. Examples of validating statements are “It’s OK to be disappointed” and “I know it’s tough on you to be away from your friends.” Spending even just a few minutes per day engaging in child-directed play (letting your child lead and refraining from questions, commands, and suggestions) is helpful in supporting emotion regulation and parent-child relationships.

For older children and teens, spend a few minutes a day just listening to your child or allowing them to talk about a topic of interest to them. Lastly, everyone needs time to “cool off” when they experience big emotions. Each person (adults too) should have an identified cool-down spot. This could be a bedroom, special chair, or even just a spot on the couch they can go to when feeling overwhelmed.

Consistency and Routine

Youth with challenging behaviors benefit from predictable schedules, boundaries and expectations. Create a general schedule for school or online camp days – you can include time for meals, homework, breaks and free time. Also, establish a consistent wake time and a reasonable bedtime similar to before COVID and maintain this sleep/wake schedule daily.

Maintain good nutrition, hydration and physical activity. Take opportunities to go outside for physical activity and sunlight when able to do so safely. Time outside is important for children’s physical and mental health. Schedule phone calls/video chats with peers, family or teachers to help maintain these relationships and social connections. Spend time with your child without any demands or agenda while engaging in leisure activities together such as playing a game, reading a book, taking a walk or preparing a meal.

Lastly, it is critically important to maintain your family’s typical rules and expectations, which includes consistent limits and consequences. Keeping consistency and routines provides a sense of control, predictability, calm and well-being which are especially important during these times.

Caregiver Modeling and Self-care

First, think about how you can be a positive role model for your child. Ask yourself if you are behaving in a way that you would want your child to copy. Express your emotions with words, such as “I’m frustrated that I forgot to buy milk at the store,” and “It makes me sad that we’re missing out on seeing Grandpa for his birthday this year.” Verbalizing our feelings can prevent strong emotions from building up inside and coming out in unhelpful ways. Ask your children to use emotion words to express themselves too. Remember to take space when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Pause and take a break to cool down when you notice strong emotions rising in yourself or your child.

Practice self-care. By managing your own distress and self-care, you are setting yourself up to better access your parenting toolkit. Make time for yourself, even if it's just for 5 minutes a day. Acknowledge your own emotions, stressors and worries. Prioritize sleep, exercise and healthy eating – the basics are more important than ever.

If your child’s behavior continues to worsen over time, it's important to seek additional support. Some children who display severe disruptive behavior or mood concerns need to be evaluated by a mental health professional. Some examples of behavior that warrant further evaluation include: aggression, uncontrollable crying spells, irritability that lasts throughout the day, destruction of property, unsafe or risky behavior, and comments about self-harm. Providers who can assist include pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, many of whom are currently available via video visits and may be transitioning back to in person care. If you are concerned about the imminent safety of your child, dial 9-1-1 or go to your nearest crisis center or emergency room.

Resources

Rachel Kolsky is a psychology intern; Julie Heier is a pediatric psychology fellow; and Alison Zisser is a clinical child psychologist, all at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Contributed by: Rachel Kolsky, MA, Julie Heier, PhD, Alison Zisser, PhD, ABPP

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