Children of all ages experience stress during normal times, and the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their everyday life and greatly added to their stress.
For example, young children who attend childcare or school regularly may find themselves home with their parents all day or in new childcare situations.
As daily routines and homelife change to include new aspects of childcare and/or education, children may act out with unexpected irritable, frustrated, or sullen behaviors.
Parents and COVID-19 stress
Stressors parents face regularly have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are most parents required to be home with their children all day with little respite, they are asked to perform work effectively from home with the same level of expectations.
In addition, many parents must take on the role of their child’s educator, appointment coordinator, and boundary-setter, making sure each child arrives on schedule to virtual appointments with educators, and assuring academic work is completed in a timely and acceptable way.
Parents manage all of these responsibilities while also responding to their child’s unusual or sustained behavioral disruptions.
The child-parent fit disrupted
Stressors children normally deal with are heightened when parents act differently than usual. For example, some parents may become quick-tempered or irritated when children interrupt their work. Some parents may ignore behaviors to which they would normally attend. Still, other parents may provide close oversight and management of older children throughout the day.
COVID-19 stress affects parent-child relationships, causing both parties to react in unusual ways that interrupt routines and disrupt the established synchrony of their relationship.
Child development and stress
Children are bound by their developmental maturity because it affects their ability to understand others’ feelings and reactions.
The frontal cortex portion of the brain develops gradually during childhood years. This is the area responsible for high-level brain functions, such as memory, emotions, impulse control, problem solving, social interaction, and motor function. Because this area is still developing in young children, they have limited insight and understanding of their own emotions, and are still learning how to control their behavior.
Uncontrollable and/or unrelenting stress, which could be related to changes sparked by the pandemic, can cause a loss of those functions and may explain why some children revert to earlier behaviors, such as bed-wetting, lashing out behavior, and seeming insensitive.
Helping children cope
Parents and caregivers have the unique ability to influence their children and help them cope in stressful times.
Children function best when routines are followed and when they can anticipate changes. Additionally, children can cope with stressful times when they have clearly outlined expectations and receive recognition for a “job well done.” Therefore, it is important for parents to reflect on their own stress levels and behaviors.When children act out or revert to younger behaviors, it is helpful to show a calm demeanor, while also providing age-appropriate consequences — parents should strive to be firm, friendly, and fair. Children of all ages will remember extreme parenting behaviors, negative or positive.
When parents handle stress by being physically active; doing yoga; practicing deep, slow breathing when things feel out of control; or engaging in quiet activities together or alone, their children can see and learn how to practice these skills to gain more control over the flood of sensations brought on by stress.
Lowering overall household stress promotes the wellness of everyone in a household. When children have positive experiences and outcomes when managing stress, they learn new behaviors they will carry into adulthood.