When the COVID-19 pandemic started a couple of months ago, my children were really misbehaving. I was sure the bad behavior was a result of their worlds completely changing.
As a therapist, I’m aware that sometimes emotional acting out can be related to other issues. While my children have their fair share of acting out behaviors, I aim to give them the benefit of the doubt, connect with their emotions, and have empathy for what they might be struggling with. This usually works to resolve acting out behaviors.
But when this pandemic hit, empathizing and connecting with feelings was not helping. The acting out behaviors were disruptive and counterproductive to what we as a family needed to accomplish during the day. I decided I needed to step up my discipline game or we were not going to thrive under the stay at home orders.
Acting Out and Effective Discipline
The Whole Brain Child is a book for parents based on brain research. Authors Siegel and Bryson remind parents that we need to understand what is going on in our children’s brains and discipline accordingly. It is important to recognize that developmentally, children’s brains are not fully developed. As the authors describe it, there is the downstairs (or low brain) and there is the upstairs (or high brain):
While the downstairs brain is well developed even at birth, the upstairs brain isn’t fully developed until a person reaches their mid-twenties… As a result, kids are prone to getting “trapped downstairs”, without the use of their upstairs brain, which results in them flying off the handle, making poor decisions, and showing a general lack of empathy and self-understanding (p.41-42).
Low Brain Acting Out
During low brain acting out, the child becomes so upset that they are no longer able to control themselves. The amygdala has taken over and the brain has become flooded with stress hormones.
How a parent can respond effectively: Siegel and Bryson suggest the strategy of “connect and redirect.” This means the parent’s main goal should be to soothe and nurture the child. When the child is in a low brain tantrum, they no longer have access to their logical brain. Therefore, talking about appropriate behavior or anything requiring logic and reason is not useful. Once the child has calmed down, you can then talk about appropriate behavior, boundaries, and consequences.
High Brain Acting Out
High brain acting out occurs when the child decides to act out. The child may scream, yell, or disobey your requests, but they are completely in control of their actions. As Siegel and Bryson describe it, “the child is working from strategy and manipulation to achieve a desired end: that you drop everything and give in to their demands” (p.45).
How a parent can respond effectively: If a child is purposefully acting out to achieve a desired outcome, the authors indicate the only response should be immediate boundaries, consequences, and education on appropriate behavior. This further reinforces the importance of respectful communication and that emotional manipulation is never ok, regardless of the circumstances that one finds themselves in.
Determining if it’s Low Brain or High Brain
How can you tell if a child is in low brain or high brain acting out? One way is to impose an immediate consequence. If your child is able to abruptly stop their behavior, then that’s an indication they are in a high brain tantrum and in full control of their own behavior.
Dr. Amen, a psychiatrist and brain researcher, noted in The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast that the current pandemic circumstances require strict family rules now more than ever. He noted that parents must bond, connect, and listen to their children, and they also must set rules:
“You’ve got to have rules. Society has rules, families should have rules… Because we use something called love and logic, where we let them pay logical consequences… Letting her pay natural consequences for her actions is very, very effective.”
One way to identify rules you would like to have in your household is to think about actions you feel are never ok, regardless of what your child might be feeling in the moment. Some of these behaviors may include:
- talking back to a parent
- fighting with a sibling
- lying to another person
- saying hurtful things to a sibling or parent
One way to approach these negative behaviors is to immediately take away an item of value from the child such as screen time, television time, or video game time. Alternatively, if you prefer a positive approach, you can let your child gain time or something of value for good behavior.
Understanding Developmental Stages
During a pandemic or other times of change, it is important to understand the developmental stage your child is in, and help them achieve developmental milestones through deliberate action. In the absence of interaction with peers during the current pandemic, parents are now in a more influential position when it comes to helping their children navigate each developmental stage.
Psychologist Erik Erikson wrote his widely accepted stages of development with child rearing in mind, specifically providing insights for parents about their children in an ever-changing, multicultural society. Although his theory was written in the 50s, the developmental stages he outlined still hold true today. A summary of Erikson’s Stages follow.
Infancy: Infant to 18 months: Trust vs Mistrust
Children will develop a sense of trust in others if their cries and needs are attended to and met most of the time.
Try: Meeting needs of your baby and responding to cries.
Toddler stage: 2 y/o to 3 y/o: Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt
Children at this stage are learning how to be independent from their caregivers. If a caregiver is disapproving of their attempts at independence, then they will develop a sense of shame or doubt in themselves.
Try: Encouraging individuation and separation by letting children try new tasks independently.
Preschool: 3 y/o to 5 y/o: Initiative vs. Guilt
Children are learning to exert power and control over their environment. If they are met with resistance, they will have feelings of guilt rather than a purpose.
Try: encouraging independent thought and trying new things. Don’t engage in shaming children when they try to exert control over their environment. Rather, offer immediate consequences that don’t imply the child is defective or a bad person.
School age: 6 y/o to 11 y/o: Industry vs. Inferiority
Children need to be able to accomplish and succeed at academic tasks.
Try: Focusing on their strengths and academic successes, rather than their weaknesses, especially during pandemic homeschooling and stay at home orders.
Adolescence: 12 y/o to 18 y/o: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Teens need to develop their own personal identity. This is often achieved in the context of peer relationships.
Try: Encouraging healthy peer relationships and connection through consistent virtual meetings or social distanced gatherings with peers while implementing boundaries and structure to these meetings.
Parenting is hard work. Understanding the brain as well as the developmental stage of your child can help in this role.
In addition, the current pandemic is providing an opportunity for parents to implement structure and rules that might not have had time to take root amidst the pre-pandemic business and commitments.
If you are struggling with parenting during this pandemic, consider reaching out to other parents, finding a parent support group, or contacting a therapist for additional help.
- Amen, D. & Amen, T. (Producers) (2020, May 12). Why you should create family rules now more than ever. The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast. Retrieved from: https://brainwarriorswaypodcast.com/why-you-should-create-family-rules-now-more-than-ever
- Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall
- Siegel, D. J. & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
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