If I could describe my toddler’s personality now that we’ve been social distancing for more than two weeks, it would be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s insanity, and I’m wondering how quarantine is affecting your toddler, my toddler, and everyone’s toddler to be honest. How are we getting through this, y’all? What is going on in their little maniacal brains right now and how can we make sure we get through this as unscathed as possible?
Like most families, ours is not a sit-at-home-all-day-every-day kind of family, so my son's entire routine is thrown off because we have to shelter in place. And as much as I try, it’s hard to give him enough stimulation during the day, and I feel like many working parents are in the same boat — especially if they're working from home like my husband and I are.
And apparently it's this lack of stimulation that triggers behavior “challenges” in kids, according to Dr. Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist.
She tells Romper that usually boredom precedes misbehavior and that “young children who are restricted from free play, structured learning opportunities through play, and social interactions with peers and family may seek stimulation in inappropriate ways.” Kind of like how my kid decided he loved to throw his wooden toys and puzzles at mom and dad and started a new fascination with hitting since this whole quarantine began.
Mendez suggests that parents try to “anticipate disruptive behaviors” by trying to the best of their ability to keep their toddler engaged. “Maintaining some of the same activities in the home as are done in the school setting can be a good start. Toddlers are responsive to spending time doing interactive activities. Engage the toddler in coloring, reading stories, listening to music, singing, or water or sand play to keep then involved and actively learning,” she says. Additionally, it’s important to have physical activity and outdoor time (if possible) to keep them engaged.
Keeping to a similar routine as you had before (or as close to it) is another way parents can help lessen the negative effects the quarantine has on their toddler, according to Mendez.
“Routines help toddlers' emotional health in a few ways — they can make transitions easier, help young children to mark time, and also provide a sense of safety and consistency. Routines help toddlers to predict what is going to happen next, which makes them feel safe,” says Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor who works with parents and kids.
“When a normal routine is thrown out of whack, that predictability suddenly goes away. You may notice that your toddler seems anxious and is clinging to you more than usual, or is having a harder time transitioning between activities and tantruming more without routines to help guide these shifts," she says.
Lear suggests trying to maintain at least the most important parts of your toddler's normal family routine. “I would recommend that a toddler's schedule include consistent meal, bedtime, and nap times, as well as opportunities each day for educational play, creative play, and physical activity.” Mendez adds that having the “presence of trusted and loving caregivers who model calmness and attend to the child’s emotional needs” provides much needed comfort and feelings of safety as well.
Echoing Mendez, Lear says physical activity in particular will likely have a positive effect on a child’s behavior in addition to trying to have them virtually interact with their playmates. But some toddlers have a little bit harder of a time with this than others, including being upset when they have to be pulled away from virtual playdates with their friends (which are still important to have, by the way).
“It must be so hard for toddlers right now to be away from friends, since they can't fully grasp why we are all staying indoors,” Lear says. “If your toddler is melting down after each virtual visit with a friend, it's a sign they need a little more support moving away from that activity. If you aren't already giving 10, 5, and 2-minute warnings, that's a great start.” Lear also suggests building in a "closing ritual" into your toddler's visits. Like your child and their friend can sing a goodbye song together or blow bubbles at each other before they sign off.
"It might also be wise to make the next activity on the agenda something you can get your child excited about — a snack or TV time, for example, rather than a nap," Lear adds.
With these issues and other negative behaviors, Lear says it’s incredibly important to help your toddler label their big feelings. “Statements like, 'It must be really sad not to see Grace today,’ or ‘I can see you're feeling frustrated,’ validate a child's feelings and give them the language to put feelings into words, rather than actions."
And a big concern for many parents — limited screen-time — can be thrown out the window for now according to both experts — especially when trying to work or get things done. “I think all bets are off with screen-time right now. Parents need to do what works to get them through the day feeling sane. If a parent is totally stressed out and can't be there emotionally for a child, that's likely to cause more problems than some extra screen-time,” Lear says. Screen-time for toddlers may be necessary during this crisis and can be useful for maintaining relationships and also for learning, Mendez says. Just be mindful of what your child is being exposed to with extra screen-time.
At the end of the day, stop putting so much pressure on yourself and your toddler. Lear says, “Children do not need parents to recreate an entire Montessori school curriculum at home in order to feel safe and secure. If you're feeling pressured to somehow come up with social-media-worthy enrichment activities every day, please don't worry about that during a global pandemic unless you find joy in it.”
Just remember physical activity, anticipating a child’s meltdown or bad behavior, and trying to keep them engaged will hopefully keep everybody as sane as possible through this strange time we are all experiencing. It’s OK to not improve yourself or be your best self right now. As long as your children feel loved and heard and they’re safe, that’s all you can do.
Dr. Maya Mendez, licensed psychotherapist
Katie Lear, licensed clinical mental health counselor