Is Your Kid Acting Out, Or Just Sad?

Is Your Kid Acting Out, Or Just Sad?
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It sounds like yet another sibling argument. Or stomping feet followed by a slammed door. It sounds like loud voices and defiance or those two particularly whiny words parents everywhere love: I’m bored. It sounds like a lot of different things, but what it actually might be is sadness.

It’s not surprising that our kids may be feeling sad right now. They’re got a lot to be sad about—school has been cancelled, their sports and activities have been cancelled, Friday night dinners at Grandma and Grandpa’s have been cancelled… it seems like their whole world has been cancelled. But sadness, particularly in kids, can masquerade as other emotions.

“The really important thing for parents to remember is that sadness looks very different in children than in adults,” says Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment of adolescents.

Sadness in kids, Greenberg says, can look like:

  • Anger

  • Defiance

  • Frustration

  • Lack of motivation

  • Sleep difficulties

  • Increases or decreases in appetite

  • Boredom

“Boredom is a red flag word,” Greenberg says. “Kids use the word ‘boredom’ a lot when they really mean they’re sad.”

Unfortunately, it’s one thing to know our kids really need our patience and support right now and a whole other thing to actually give it when we, ourselves, are feeling crushed under any number of financial and emotional burdens.

Child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator Katie Hurley writes for the Washington Post that parents can start by taking care of their own physical and emotional needs—and then developing a plan for when they’re going to inevitably lose their patience anyway:

Parents can come up with a signal, and a plan to implement when the signal is used, to give themselves the emotional space to work through stress and frustration. One hand in the air, for example, can represent “Take 5,” telling kids to set a timer for five minutes of colouring, listening to music, yoga or another quiet activity while parents engage in their own calming activity.

Be attuned to them

Kids need to feel seen and heard all of the time, but maybe especially right now. They need to be able to talk about what they’re feeling and know their parents understand that this is a difficult time for them. Dr. Erin Leyba, therapist and author, writes for Psychology Today that this is sometimes often referred to as “holding space”:

“Holding space” means supporting someone without trying to cheer them up, tell them how good they have it, give advice, or talk them out of what they’re feeling. It involves listening with an open heart and staying grounded and compassionate while someone shares deep and uncomfortable emotions.

And Greenberg says it’s ok to go a little easy on them right now.

“If your kid is being a little defiant, this isn’t a good time to cut down on their screen time [as punishment],” she says. “You can have expectations of your kids, but maybe lighten up a bit, too.”

Give them an additional role in the family

My own nine-year-old son asked me the other day if he could learn how to cook a meal for the family by himself. “Sometimes you cook, and sometimes Daddy cooks,” he told me. “I should take a turn, too.” What he was doing, Greenberg points out, was seeking another role within the family—and that’s something parents can help facilitate right now.

“I’m talking to all the parents [I work with] about giving their kids an additional role in the family,” says Greenberg, who has been conducting virtual sessions with her clients during the pandemic. “We all need to feel relevant, and I always stand firmly behind that—it’s when we don’t feel relevant that we can get really depressed.”

That additional role could be more responsibility for caring for the family pets, helping younger siblings with remote learning or planning family activities—anything that helps them contribute to the larger family unit and is something they are likely to enjoy or take pride in.

Teach empathy

If ever you were looking for the perfect moment to hammer home some lessons in empathy, this is it. That can look like having your kids help you deliver some soup to an elderly neighbour (and then ringing the doorbell and backing up six feet to keep them safe). They can draw pictures or write uplifting messages in chalk around the neighbourhood or make cards to send to your local senior care facility.

What teaching empathy doesn’t look like, Greenberg says, is pointing out how much harder other kids might have it right now. You might not be under the same financial strain as other families or in as dire of circumstances, but it’s really not helpful to point that out.

“That’s invalidating how your kids are feeling,” she says.

And keep in mind they may actually be Zoom’d out

Even for kids who were excited at the prospect of schools closing down (it’s like one big long holiday), the novelty has likely worn off by now. What initially looked like a break now seems to have no end in sight and feels more like being trapped. And they may be similarly overwhelmed, Greenberg says, by all the extra technology they’re suddenly allowed to use.

“I think some kids might be having a little bit too much of the virtual interactions,” Greenberg says. “They don’t have to get on every Zoom call.”

Whenever possible, let them pick and choose which calls they’d like to take. Just because Billy wants to Zoom at 4pm and then Sophia wants to FaceTime at 5pm doesn’t mean they have to. And if all the calls with their classmates aren’t mandatory and they want to skip a day, let them skip. They may actually need a break from the sudden influx of online communication.

And finally, Greenberg suggests, find time to play with your kids or watch silly videos together or do a fun activity—however your family most likes to connect and laugh together.

“Just because it’s a tough time,” she says, “doesn’t mean you can’t play.”

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