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Is Your Child Spiraling Out of Control During Lockdown?

How to set loving limits so kids feel safe and secure in their shifting world.

If your child is spiraling out of control more frequently as week after week of this lockdown continues, you are not alone. I am hearing more and more parents describe their child as a "hot mess." Here are some typical examples that may sound familiar:

  • Janelle starts reading a bedtime book to her 3-year-old, Sam. One page in, he starts screaming that she isn’t reading the book the right way and insists that Daddy (Brent) take over. This flip-flopping goes on for several more rounds until both Janelle and Brent are at their wit's end and Sam wears himself out sobbing and falls asleep.
  • Lucy (4) asks for toast for breakfast. Bernard, one of her dads, presents it to her; but, uh-oh, he has cut it on the diagonal when she wanted it halved down the middle! Lucy insists that he must make a new piece of toast. Bernard sighs heavily—they’ve been around this block before—and looks at his husband, Josh, with that “what to do?” hunch of the shoulders. They know Lucy is having a hard time these days with all the changes in her world. So, they decide they will ease her stress by meeting her demand. Josh pops another piece of bread into the toaster. When he hands it to her, Lucy announces that what she really wants is a scrambled egg. Josh gets visibly annoyed with Lucy—telling her to make up her mind. She starts to pout and tells Josh to stop yelling at her. Josh feels bad for losing it with her and proceeds to whip up an egg. Spoiler alert: Lucy proclaims that the egg is too yellow, and the crazy-making cycle continues.

The seismic shift in children’s worlds due to COVID-19 has led to a precipitous increase in this kind of maddening behavior that is very challenging for even the most patient parents. As you’ve heard me say many times, when children feel out of control on the inside, they act out of control on the outside, which results in situations like those described above. And, those “orchids”—the kids who are more sensitive and reactive by nature—are even more likely to struggle during this time of major change.

How do you respond to children who are spiraling out of control and getting themselves into complete tizzies, driving themselves, and everyone around them, mad?

While in these moments your kids may be acting like they want to be in charge—calling the shots—that’s not what they need. What they need is for you to put up the guardrails necessary to help them feel safe and secure, not follow them down the perilous path to nowhere that they are on. They need you to be their rock when they are unraveling. (Remember not to take the vitriol kids have been known to hurl in these moments at face value. It is just their way of trying to derail you and get you to go with their program. Ignoring the venom they may spew is the best way to reduce their use of this strategy.)

With this understanding, here is how Sam's and Lucy's parents respond in ways that are loving and supportive while setting clear limits:

Janelle and Brent decide that it is important that they both read with Sam at bedtime; that it is not appropriate for him to be the decider and potentially leave one parent out. (He recently went through a phase of wanting only Daddy and rejecting Mommy.) So, the plan they devise is that each parent will read one book to Sam before lights-out.

Once they begin reading, if Sam starts to protest, they will let him know that he can decide whether or not to listen—that is his choice—but they will continue to read, one way or the other, when it is their turn. The first night, when Janelle starts to read, Sam immediately protests, criticizing her and demanding Daddy. Janelle remains loving and non-reactive. She continues reading, even upping her game—using lots of animation and drama. As Sam begins to see that his strategy to control the situation isn't working, and mom isn’t providing any fodder to his fight, he quiets down and slowly cuddles up next to Janelle for the remainder of her reading time—a much happier ending for all.

Bernard and Josh decide that they will offer Lucy three options for breakfast—all from among her typical favorites. When they present the choices, she says she doesn’t like any of them and blurts out, “I am going to tell you your choices!” Knowing that this is an attempt to gain control of the situation and derail them, Bernard and Josh remain calm and don’t respond to the bait. They stay the course, letting Lucy know that since it’s a big decision, they are going to give her a whole minute to think about it.

When the minute is up, Lucy still insists that they are not the boss of her and none of the choices are okay! Bernard and Josh tell her that they will go ahead, then, and make eggs. She shouts, "That is the worst idea I ever heard!" She goes on to tell them that she hates eggs (one of her favorite foods), will never eat them, and that they should not put them anywhere near her. Bernard places the plate of Lucy's eggs on the counter and lets her know that it is her choice whether she wants to eat them or not.

Bernard and Josh proceed to eat their breakfast, ignoring Lucy’s continued provocations, but not ignoring her. They tell funny stories and keep an upbeat tone to show Lucy that it’s all good—they are not angry—and they are going to continue enjoying their breakfast despite her efforts to derail their time together. They don’t say another word about the eggs. Within a few minutes, Lucy takes the plate from the counter and sheepishly starts to nibble at the eggs. Bernard and Josh know not to say a word about it—Lucy will never “eat crow!" Making any mention of her acquiescence is sure to set her back into opposition-mode. They followed the same approach each morning and breakfast battles were soon bygones.

This is why limits—even though kids may fight them tooth and nail—are loving, now more than ever.

For more guidance on how to set effective limits with love, check out this article.

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