Juggling the stress of sheltering-in-place, working from home, and homeschooling children presents challenges for most families. With families who have previously experienced behavioral difficulties, or for parents of children with a psychological disorder, the physical and emotional toll of meeting the family’s needs can be especially taxing. Add to the mix parent’s concerns about the safety and well-being of family members, social restrictions, and many questions of what “normal” life will look like.
As with many parenting and behavior management strategies, the effectiveness lies in the anticipation and prevention of significant challenges. This is no different during a stay-at-home order. Boredom, frustration, unexpected changes, chores and responsibilities, isolation from friends and extracurricular activities — a schedule carefully crafted to help your child remain distracted and release their energy, are now absent.
Here are some concrete strategies to manage behavioral challenges and maintain a positive relationship while stuck at home:
1. See the World through Your Child’s Eyes
As adults we are grappling with fear, anxiety, and ever-changing schedules as we manage to keep everything afloat during this unique time. As we notice our own stress — consider how this is impacting children. School, perhaps the most importance source of grounding, consistency and socialization, is a place that is no longer deemed safe. Uncertainty about situations beyond their understanding and imagination. Will my family get sick? How long will we be home together? Will I play on my soccer team again? All of these important and valid questions running through a child’s mind, and as adults we are left unable to given them concrete answers.
When your child is acting out or becoming frustrated, it can be helpful to consider the world from their perspective, help them identify and validate their emotions, and offer them comfort. They may be just as worried as you are.
2. What works for one child, may not work for another.
Something I commonly hear in my private practice with families and children is a comparison between the behaviors of siblings. Parents describe, “My oldest just listens easily! I never have to ask twice! While my youngest needs constant reminders — until I find myself screaming!” It is helpful to keep in mind that siblings often have differing temperaments, personalities and interests. They may also have contrasting motivators. One child may feel proud when their parent praises them for completing a chore on their own. Another is motivated by the extra dessert they are looking forward to after they comply with bath-time.
If you are presenting the same demands, questions, tasks, in the same ways, and are met with extreme responses, it can be extremely frustrating and exhausting. It is important to keep in mind that children are not often going to gain the insight and judgment to change their responses or reactions on their own. Instead, it is easier and more appropriate for the parent to make modifications. Change your approach — differentiate your style with each child.
Parents often tell me, if they are creating a reward system for one child, they feel they need to create one for their other child, even when no behavior difficulties are present. This can set the scene for a tricky dynamic. If I already take a shower on my own, why do I need to track it on a chart? Now the intrinsic motivation the child had will shift as they look to rewards to motivate their behavior.
Modifying approaches for each child will help them to recognize and develop their own unique personality, ideals, and beliefs. It will encourage a positive self-concept and, in turn, will make for a more peaceful environment at home.
3. Manage Expectations
As we connect with friends and loved ones via video calls, we are maintaining our social ties, but it is certainly no match for hugging a friend or chatting face-to-face over coffee. Just as this aspect of our lives is not quite the same as before, the same goes for school, chores, organization, and even sleep and exercise. Homeschooling does not replace a full day of school. Backyard soccer does not replace the rigor of team soccer practice.
As you help your child navigate their day, manage your expectations for what you would like them to accomplish and how. Maybe their level of effort with schoolwork is not as it was before. Maybe they no longer see the urgency in making their bed. Carefully explaining and outlining your expectations in advance often replaces the need for any future negotiations or arguments. Reminders are always helpful, and based on the needs of the child, a visual schedule or checklist can also be important to maintain accountability.
Certainly, keeping a level of responsibility and structure is key to any behavioral success. But as so many aspects of daily life change, so can our expectations. When a child is expressing frustration or worry over a specific task or assignment, maybe some extra breaks are needed. On rainy days, anticipate boredom, and find creative ways to let out energy. Listen to their frustration, validate, and engage them in problem-solving. “How can we work together so that you can complete your math assignment, and I can finish my work call?”
4. Consistency with Flexibility Is Key
What I often recommend to many families I work with is balance and moderation. Just as with a healthy diet, moderation is key. Some days will be easier than others.
There is a delicate balance between maintaining structure and consistency, but knowing when to be flexible. If there have been days when you were swamped with your own work and did not notice the chaos that became your 10-year-old’s room, that is fine. But banishing them from all electronics on another day when you noticed their mess, sends mixed messages and ignites your child’s frustration (and that question of fairness again!).
5. Model Appropriate Coping
You may think that on those days when you are burnt out, you cannot offer any solid parenting skills. Not true! Use those moments to teach your little ones what it looks like when someone is frustrated, upset, meets a challenge, and how you can overcome that. Explaining why you may be doing what you are doing is helpful for your child to understand how coping skills can be used appropriately. Children often learn best from doing, and observing — so take advantage of those moments!
6. Find and Create Motivation
Anyone doing work from home may be unmotivated. There are more distractions and alternative activities that are more attractive. If your 10-year-old seems to only crack a smile at the mention of their favorite video game — use it as a tool to motivate. Ideally, it can be helpful to tap into skills or unique talents to inspire your child’s motivation. For example, if your child is a talented artist and loves painting, you may encourage them to finish their schoolwork so that you can join an online painting session together.
In my practice, I usually recommend experiences over tangible rewards. Your child will remember and appreciate the time you spent together in an engaging activity, rather than the toy that came in the mail.
7. Each Day Is a New Day
It is common for children with challenging behaviors to feel constantly criticized, yelled at or “in trouble.” Aside from significant offenses (such as aggression), forgetting to do a chore, or missing a homework assignment, or taking too long to get off of a device when asked, can be addressed in the moment with a brief consequence.
It may not be helpful to drag out consequences or removal of privileges for days on end. This will increase frustration, boredom and resentment. Especially when stuck at home… imagine if someone told you that you had to give up your phone for a day? Allowing your child a fresh start each day can improve morale and motivation, both for your child and for you as the parent.