Almost all parents say their children are driving them crazy during coronavirus and social distancing. We’re in closer contact with them, and anxieties are running high.
It’s not easy parenting in these conditions. Spending more time with our kids during this massive quarantine event is hard. It’s even harder if our kids tend to experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.
It turns out that a lot of the things that drive us crazy about our kids may be anxiety in disguise. This means that if we learn to address our kids’ anxiety, we can improve their behavior and feel less annoyed with them.
Annoying behavior is often anxiety in disguise
First, you must learn to recognize anxiety in your child. It can be surprisingly hard to do this, since anxiety is mostly just annoying. Anxiety is often associated with being rude and irritable. If your child is driving you crazy during coronavirus quarantine, it’s very possible they are experiencing anxiety.
Your child may be rude, sarcastic, or cry more than usual. They could be obsessing about their bodies and criticizing your body. Your child may be genuinely hard to live with right now. It may help to learn to recognize when the difficulties stem from their anxiety. It makes it easier to tolerate them, and it also makes it easier to know what to do next, which is soothe their anxiety vs criticize their behavior.
Often when our kids are acting out, all we want to do is tell them to quit being so dramatic, annoying, or ridiculous. But what they actually need from us is to recognize that the problem is not their behavior itself, but the fact that they are experiencing anxiety.
Surprising symptoms of anxiety:
- Helpless crying
- Annoying behavior
- Obsessing about things like food, toilet paper, body weight, fitness, etc.
- Repeating the same fear over and over e.g. “are we going to be OK?” “are we going to die?” and “am I fat?”
If you learn to recognize these annoying habits as anxiety, it will help you manage them better and improve your relationship during coronavirus and social distancing.
When we recognize anxiety as the cause of our kids’ annoying behavior, we can try to treat the symptom of anxiety. This is much more effective than criticizing our kids for being annoying or rude. If the cause of the behavior is anxiety, then we need to address the anxiety, and the behavior will fix itself. It won’t completely disappear, because anxiety is constant right now, but it will get easier to manage and become faster to resolve.
Managing your child’s anxiety looks different from typical parenting
It’s important to recognize that our kids’ annoying behavior often comes from anxiety, because then we can be more effective in getting the behavior to stop. When our child is driving us crazy anytime, but especially during coronavirus quarantine, we need to try some new parenting techniques.
The problem is that we typically think of parents as being the role of controlling and shaping our kids’ behavior. So if a child is rude, we snap back “don’t be rude” or “I will not accept that behavior – go to your room!”
While these approaches might work in some times, during times of high anxiety, they can backfire tremendously. This is because traditional parenting approaches completely ignore the reason for the behavior. If the reason for the behavior is anxiety, ignoring that means we miss the chance to improve our experience of our kids.
Unmanaged anxiety almost always snowballs. This means that parents become increasingly frustrated with their kids who have anxiety. Meanwhile, kids become increasingly anxious and frustrated with their parents. It’s easy to blame each other. This may be why so many teens and young adults drive their parents crazy. In fact, many parents frequently report they secretly hate their teenagers.
This is a sad outcome of unmanaged anxiety. Luckily, it’s not inevitable or permanent. When parents learn to recognize and soothe their kids’ anxiety, they can make a tremendous impact on their child’s behavior and likability.
How to soothe your child’s anxiety to improve their behavior
Anxiety often drives annoying behavior. When parents react to the behavior without addressing the anxiety underneath, they miss an opportunity to help their kids – and themselves.
Learning to soothe your child’s anxiety instead of automatically responding to their behavior takes time and practice. Don’t expect to do this perfectly the first time or even the five-thousandth time. Just keep practicing.
Here are some steps to help you soothe your child’s anxiety:
1. Soothe yourself – this is hard. Parents who are facing kids with anxiety feel angry and triggered. They want to lash out and control the situation. This is natural and normal. Take a few deep breaths and give yourself compassion for the difficulty of this moment. You will be more effective if you are calm and centered.
2. Recognize when annoying behavior is coming from anxiety. It’s important to recognize that your child is not a monster who needs to be controlled. If their negative behavior comes from anxiety, then addressing the anxiety will likely end the behavior. Observe the behavior – are they being annoying? Rude? Obsessive? Now remember that these behaviors are often driven by anxiety, not a character flaw.
3. Imagine what might be going on. The first step to soothing anxiety is tapping into your empathy. This means recognizing how your child might be feeling right now. Seek to understand why they are being rude – are they feeling trapped and out of control? Are they afraid that you will never be able to buy more toilet paper and everyone will starve? Do they believe that if they get fat nobody will love them? Seek understanding before anything else.
4. Soothe them. When our kids act up, the first thing we want to do is correct them. But in cases of anxiety, we need to soothe them first. Some soothing comments include:
- I can understand why you feel frustrated right now
- You are very angry – I get it
- I imagine that all of this feels like it’s just too much
- I’m here for you. You’re safe.
- I know that sometimes when you worry about your body it means you’re feeling scared about other things, too (only say this if you have previously discussed this together and both agree)
5. Discuss the anxiety. Avoid asking questions about the anxiety or behavior until you sense your child is soothed. Here are some clues: their breathing will slow down and their voice will return to a normal tone and volume. The annoying behavior should be greatly reduced or stopped. Once this happens (and not before), you can ask some questions like:
- Do you want to tell me about how you’re feeling?
- I’d like to hear more about what’s going on for you right now
- It makes sense that you’re feeling anxious/angry/sad – can you tell me about it?
- What can I do to help you right now?
- If I had a magic wand, what would you want me to do?
6. Discuss the behavior. Once your child has calmed down and you have discussed the cause of their behavior, you may want to gently discuss the behavior itself. It’s important to do this without blaming. Seek a collaborative approach in which you seek solutions together rather than dictate rules of engagement. For example:
- I know you were feeling so angry when that happened. And I need you to know it’s very scary for me when you punch the wall/scream at me/yell obscenities. I’d like us to work together to avoid this in the future.
- I understand how stressful life is right now. And I need you to know that when you ask me if you’re fat it triggers a lot of fear for me. I worry that you will stop eating and taking care of yourself. I’ll keep working on myself, and let’s keep talking about it. Is there anything I can do in the future to help?
Self-compassion for everyone
This is a tough time. If your child is driving you crazy during coronavirus quarantine, you are not alone. This is hard. Self-compassion can help.
The main thing that helps anxiety and annoying anxiety symptoms is self-compassion. The more that parents practice self-compassion for themselves, the better we are able to respond to our kids’ anxiety without over-reacting to their behavior. And if we can teach our kids self-compassion, they are likely to have fewer outbursts. Self-compassion is also shown to reduce anxiety, so it’s a win-win.
Consider learning more about self-compassion and putting into practice in your home.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.