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Why Is My Child Acting Like This?

During these unprecedented times, it can be difficult for us to assess just how well our children are adapting to the continuing uncertainty that surrounds us. How can we be sure that the behaviors our children are exhibiting are just a normal response to stress and not something more?

As we are all well aware, times of adversity can trigger a wide array of emotions in everyone. For children however, what we witness most often in moments like this, is some level of regressive behavior.

Regression from a psychology standpoint, simply represents a return back to a previous stage of development. For the toddler who recently mastered sleeping alone, he may now be waking up multiple times throughout the night. The elementary aged child who always found enjoyment in independent play, now has regressed back to needing a parent present to engage and entertain her. Or the teenager who once seemed so even-tempered is now lashing out impulsively at those around him. Overall, there may be an increased presence in clinginess, whining, sleep disturbance and tantrum-like outbursts.

Although it can be difficult to witness, it is important to understand that some regressive behavior is normal. When this occurs, it means that our children are struggling to process complex emotions and are ill-equipped to adequately manage it all. With their defenses depleted, children will revert back to more primitive ways of coping.

The way we as parents respond to these behaviors can drastically impact the length and severity of their presence. Because although these are normal reactions to stress, when our children exhibit regressive behaviors, it is a warning sign that they are overwhelmed and in need of our support.
What Can You Do To Help?

  • Maintain Your Own Self Care: During times of uncertainty, children of all ages will look to our emotional responses to help them better interpret and react to ambiguous situations. In taking time to ourselves to identify and process our own impulsive reactions, we are not only helping ourselves to stay regulated, but are also mirroring healthy behavior for our children.
  • Stay Calm: As a parent it can be frustrating to watch our children revert back to more immature behaviors. But it is important to remember that a child’s development is not linear, and what they are easily able to adapt to one day, can be overwhelming the next.
  • Provide Support & Validation: Although it can feel warranted to reprimand these seemingly inappropriate behaviors, projecting your own frustration onto your child at the moment will only make them feel worse. Try your best to remember that these behaviors signify that they are in distress. What they need now more than anything, is compassion, patience and support.
  • Re-establish Structure: Subconsciously, children are seeking structure and predictability at a time when neither seem to be overtly present. Children thrive when there is consistency; enhancing their feelings of safety and security as they navigate the day knowing what to expect. It may feel impossible to establish structure when there are not many scheduled events occurring. However, if we implement morning and bedtime routines, our children will be assured that there is consistency at the beginning and end of each day.
  • Encourage Healthy Habits: It has been proven that physical exercise, healthy diet and adequate sleep can all positively contribute to a child’s ability to stay regulated and overcome times of adversity. Children of all ages may struggle to see or appreciate the immediate benefit of these lifestyle choices. However, as parents it is essential that we implement these necessary improvements.
  • Know When Additional Support Is Needed: Although some level of regression is normal and may improve with time, it is important to recognize when certain behavioral responses are maladaptive and symbolize deeper distress within our children. This may include a severe decline in their functioning – chronic nightmares, bedwetting, debilitating anxiety when separated from you, frequent crying, volatile and aggressive behaviors towards self or others. The list can be endless – but as parents, it is our responsibility to keep a close eye on our children’s behavior. You know your child best. If something doesn’t feel right, take a proactive step and seek additional support so that your child can learn more appropriate and adaptive ways of overcoming stressful situations.

It can be easy to get wrapped up in the specific behaviors that our children are exhibiting right now, allowing ourselves to engage in unnecessary arguments, feeling overwhelmed with anxiety about what this means for our children and focusing our attention on the behaviors we want them to stop. Instead, try to remind yourself that when these behaviors occur, it is our child’s way of asking for help. Being that stability for them right now and helping to guide them through these uncertain times with patience, understanding and empathy, will help to move your child forward in their own growth and development.

Nikki Woods

Nikki Woods is a highly-sought after licensed clinical psychotherapist, founder of the Navesink Wellness Center in Rumson, New Jersey, and creator of Mindstream Daily Wellness App. After earning her Masters Degree at New York University, Nikki dedicated her career to studying the intricacies of the developing female mind.
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