Why Nursery-Age Kids Are Struggling – And How To Help Them

Toddlers are angry. They're agitated. They're playing up. But why?

Social contact is limited for the majority of people across the UK during the third lockdown, allowing people to mix only with their households indoors. For kids, this is very much the same – schools are only open for key workers’ children, meaning many are being schooled at home by their parents.

One age group where things resemble normal life more than for most is nursery-age kids. During lockdown, nurseries have been asked to remain open for all children (even if some have limited their intake and parents have voluntarily opted to keep their kids out). But for those children who do continue to attend and socialise with other kids their age, there have been some behaviour shifts.

One HuffPost reader said: “I picked little’un up earlier, and the nursery worker said all the kids are playing up... on [the] school run, one mum said her nursery-age son is really angry at the moment. Toddlers who know something’s up, and don’t quite know how to deal with it.”

dragana991 via Getty Images

Dr Jennifer Wills Lamacq, a child psychologist specialising in early years and families, says she’s heard from many parents “worried and confused” about the change in behaviour of their children. “It adds to the stress of lockdown and can create a vicious cycle; the more we worry, the harder parenting becomes,” she tells HuffPost UK. Child psychologist Amanda Gummer also tells us she has heard similar concerns from both nursery teachers and parents.

It’s tough for parents. “I’m very conscious there isn’t a great deal of practical and emotional support promoted to parents of young children managing this stressful time,” says Counselling Directory member Siobhan Lond. “There seems to be a huge gap in support for this niche group.”

So what’s going on?

Young children rely on their experiences – more than words – to make sense of the world, says Dr Lamacq, so they’re greatly affected by the people around them and by the structure and events of their day.

“They attune to the emotions of people around them by noticing tone of voice, expression, level of patience, attention and so on,” she explains. “For many parents, lockdown has been challenging, stressful, and upsetting which has an understandable impact on the atmosphere.”

Counselling Directory member Karen Schumann agrees, adding: “Children this age tend to be very perceptive to what’s going on around them and could be sensing tension and frustration and this can come out with their behaviour,” she says. “Parents are also having to juggle a lot more at home and the child may not be getting as much attention as before, causing them to act out to get the attention they need.”

It’s worth remembering that lockdown has meant big and small changes in their day. At home, there will be changes in the people, routines, and attention available to them, says Dr Lamacq. “Children at nursery may feel more unsettled leaving their family and will be noticing changes such as different staff or fewer children.”

Equally, young children usually have opportunities to experience a necessary and manageable range of tensions that help their emotional development, says Dr Lamacq. She offers the examples of: crying for sweets in the shop, refusing to leave the play centre, fighting over a toy with a friend. “In lockdown these opportunities disappear and many parents find that instead, young children have big and unexpected outbursts, as a way to experience and resolve the normal range of emotions.”

Gummer notes that young children may also have regressed slightly over the last six months with a lack of social interactions and stimulations – so may be finding nursery challenging. And of course, as kids are likely spending more time at home – away from nursery – it’s also possible they’re not getting the same opportunity to burn off all the energy they usually would, adds Schumann, and this could cause them to hold tension in their bodies that they need to release.

What can parents do?

If possible, Schumann advises parents to try to set time aside where a child or children have your undivided attention. “If they’re feeling angry or frustrated you could ask them to draw what that looks like for them,” she suggests. Look for opportunities to connect, adds Dr Lamacq: playing, reading or watching TV together.

Try and keep things as familiar and predictable as you can – and give simple explanations when things have to change. A simple way to do this, advises Lond, is to put in place the 3 Rs: reassurance, routine and regulation.

If they play up, “help your child understand their feelings by naming their emotions,” says Dr Lamacq. “Support them through a tantrum rather than punishing it, and help them move on after it. Understand that they will be more emotional and you can help them ride the storm.”

It’s also a good idea to make sure they spend enough time outside burning off their energy, adds Schumann. And finally – everything is incredibly hard right now, but if your toddler is playing up, try your best to remain patient and really listen to them, says Schumann. “If they’re acting out/playing up, they’re usually trying to tell you something!”