Going back to school after the summer holidays is often the source of some epic tantrums, considering kids have had weeks of staying up way past bedtime, getting up late and ‘duvet days’.
So, when you factor in the fact most children in the UK haven’t been to school for six months, let alone six weeks – not to mention the stresses of lockdown – parents might be on the receiving end of even worse behaviour than usual.
The government has issued guidance for carers on its website, warning that children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing may have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Some kids “may react immediately”, they say, while others, “may show signs of difficulty later on”.
It might be harder for kids to regulate their behaviour right now because they’ve lost their usual coping mechanisms, like seeing friends or taking part in routine activities, says Jack Parnell-Driver, from the YoungMinds Parents Helpline,
“In the last few months, young people have struggled to cope with social isolation, anxiety, a loss of structure and fears about their future,” he says. “Some might also be struggling with bereavement or other traumatic experiences during the lockdown period, while groups who were already marginalised or disadvantaged are now likely to become more so.”
Paediatrician and author Dr Harvey Karp tells HuffPost UK it’s not surprising tantrums are getting worse, as children have been cooped up. “Boredom, frustration, fatigue, poor diet, and the inevitable limitations of your living space during lockdown can be as explosive as mixing nitro and glycerin,” he warns.
Some of the things you may see your child doing, says Parnell-Driver, include: acting out or having angry or aggressive outbursts, finding it difficult to calm down when they’re distressed, withdrawing from friends, family, school and activities they usually enjoy, and changes in their appetite and sleep patterns.
So, how can parents deal with it? Here are some top tips from the experts.
Talk to your child in a simple way– and validate their feelings.
“When a young child is upset, the fast-acting, rowdy right side of their brains takes the wheel, overriding the more logical left side of the brain,” says Karp. “That’s why your well-intentioned words of reason aren’t able to reach your furious little friend.”
But it’s really important to try and talk to your child to let them know you understand why they might be finding things difficult, advises Parnell-Driver.
Reflect back the words children use when you’re doing this to validate their feelings. Karp calls this method of communication the ‘Fast Food Rule’. “When your child is angry or frustrated, you repeat back what they’re feeling, before you try to calm them down or offer any kind of explanation,” he advises.
Karp also recommends using short, one, two or three-word sentences, and don’t be afraid of repetition. “You may say the same thing five to 10 times just to get through,” he warns.
Mirror their expressions and gestures.
Aim to be your child’s anchor when they’re acting out. “Provide structure, routine and reassurance and think together about what helps them cope with difficult feelings,” says Parnell-Driver.
Parents should aim to mirror about a third of their child’s emotional intensity with their own tone of voice, expression, and gestures, says Karp. “This helps make your child feel understood,” he says. “It might feel a little weird at first, but it’s actually pretty similar to how you might want someone to respond to you if you were very upset.”
Focus on ‘time in’, not ‘time out’.
Another way to curb misbehaviour – and boost good behaviour – is to use a ‘time in’, rather than a ‘time out’, suggests Karp. A ‘time in’ is the opposite of a ‘time out’: “It’s when a well-behaving child gets tiny bits of encouragement that tell them, ‘keep it up!’” he says.
“When you see your child doing something you like, let them know. Mix a bit of fanfare with a bunch of compliments and a whole lot of gentle, smiling approval – just don’t go overboard, because balance is key.
“When children act out, our first instinct might be to use a consequence like a time out. While time outs can be a way to stop dangerous behaviour, a steady stream of time ins are a more effective way to boost good behaviour than a steady stream of time outs.”
“There are many types of time-ins,” Karp explains. “One of my favourites is ‘gossip’: let your child overhear you whispering to grandpa – or even a teddy bear – about how great they’re doing. Like grown-ups, kids are more likely to believe compliments they overhear than direct praise.”
Give them attention – as well as ‘special time’.
Giving your children attention in this tricky time leading up to the new term tells them you’re interested in what they’re doing – and that makes them feel good. “Plus, it doesn’t require a lot of time from busy parents,” adds Karp. “A pat on the back, a wink, or a kind word can go a long way.”
Your relationship may also benefit from regular “special time”, adds Karp. Special time is a daily routine of two 5- to 10-minute sessions of uninterrupted attention. See what they’d like to do in this time, whether it be drawing, watching a programme together, or playing with their toys in their bedroom.
Seek help if you’re struggling.
If you find it hard to talk to your child about how they are feeling, there are lots of resources on the YoungMinds website. If things don’t improve, seek advice and help, whether that’s through their school or your GP.