Managing Behavior of Your Young Child During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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COVID-19-wise, everyone is in a different place at the moment. Some people are working from home, some aren’t working, and some are back to their regular workplace. Some live where cases are on the decline; in other localities, they’re skyrocketing.

Whether you’re in a location where life is still very much upside-down or, except possibly for your mask, things seem pretty much back to normal, there are a couple of constants. Babies are still born. They grow and develop into toddlers. The developmental milestones—the fun ones as well as the more challenging ones—continue to happen. And one truth, convenient or not: how we handle each stage can influence a child’s behavior going forward. Let’s spend a little time figuring out how we debug behavior issues and foster good behavior during these times.

A Few Child Development Basics

It’s a little optimistic to say that social and emotional development of our youngest infants is a no-brainer, but there are some constants that are clearly minimally affected by COVID-19. Young babies are very good at letting us know when they need something, although some crying is expected even when nothing’s wrong. They enjoy human faces and being talked to almost from the get-go. By 3 months of age, they interact differently with different people. Early on, they thrive on routines.

In late infancy, a couple of things happen. They begin to differentiate themselves from others. It’s at this point that independence-asserting behaviors and all those “nos” can start. Also at this age, they may be more fearful of unfamiliar adults and situations.

As we get to toddlerhood, between ages 1 and 2, interactions with others become more important—hence, games like “pat-a-cake.” Also, toddlers want to explore more and can “help” doing simple tasks. Increasingly, they can accept unfamiliar people. Around age 2, copying others and pretend play emerge, as do enough words to make verbal communication a reality.

Behavior, Development and COVID-19: Constants and Challenges

Even under the best of circumstances, child development presents all sorts of challenges to overcome. If you’ve ever lived through a toddler wanting the same thing to eat every day, you know that change is difficult. That process of learning to differentiate one’s self from others and becoming an individual, and all the inherent “nos” that go with it, can be tough for a family to endure for long. The inability for our youngest folks to verbalize what they’re thinking or feeling means that they have to channel their emotions elsewhere—sometimes in behaviors we consider undesirable.

You can already how these challenges are multiplied during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. What we do, where we go and how we do it continues to be limited, which limits exploring opportunities. Kids can sense parents’ discomfort and anxiety, and since they can’t verbalize, they may act out in other ways. And although many infants and toddlers have now spent a few months growing up under the “new normal,” there are still changes in routines—and there will be more when we are able to relax things a little. That’s mostly a good thing, but even positive changes necessitate adjustments.

Some Things to Do

You’re not alone in your quest to keep your older infant or toddler on track. Here’s some conventional wisdom for a very unconventional time.

First off, do a feelings check on yourself. Are you anxious? Stressed? Tired? Feeling overwhelmed? Getting cabin fever? If you can check in with yourself and do something, however brief, that works to relax you, half the battle will be won. Even a minute or two of big breaths works wonders. You’ll have more energy for your infant or toddler.

Get outdoors for a bit to get some exercise and sunshine. Take the stroller so you and your baby can enjoy the excursion together.

You and your partner can take turns and give each other some breaks. If you’re a single parent, or if one of you is out working, is there someone else who’s low risk for infection—perhaps through some combination of a negative test and behaviors—who can spell you for a little bit?

As far as actually managing your little one, being home a little more has its advantages. You might get a better appreciation what any acting-out behavior means. Sometimes it’s anxiety, sometimes an aversion to a change in routine. It may take a little trial and error, but you’ll get a sense of why kids do what they do if you pay attention. Once you know, it will be easier to deal with the behavior.

Keep as many routines as possible. And if your toddler is missing familiar people such as grandparents, do what we’re all doing—video conference!

When it actually comes to undesirable behavior, every older infant and toddler is a learning curve. Distraction away from what’s involved in the bad behavior (“oh, look at that!”) often works. Praise for good behavior is a huge motivator.

Finally, model good behavior. Share your own feelings in an age-appropriate way with your young one. And during this time, when tensions between people are being created, model empathy, kindness, and good listening!

Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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