kids

Pandemic life has affected our kids and their behaviour. This is what we can do.

After over two years of stress and disruption to our lives from the COVID-19 pandemic, a cohort of children has started daycare, pre-school and primary school without spending much time in the company of others. 

During lockdown, parents looked after kids, often while working from home, and teachers only had contact with their classes on a screen.

It has been an anxiety provoking time for many reasons with parents, teachers, and early educators noting that it has negatively impacted kids' behaviour.

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Mum-of-two Tanya* has struggled to know how best to help her daughter, who started school in January 2020.

"My daughter was young to start school, but we felt while she was an anxious child, she was academically and socially ready," Tanya tells Mamamia.

But as COVID hit and kids were sent home to learn, Tanya, like many other parents, was left to juggle a huge load.

"We were homeschooling a four-year-old who had barely started school. She did not know how to read, write, or do basic maths. Meanwhile, her father and I were still working and caring for her younger brother."

Tanya says her daughter went into Year 1 diagnosed with ADHD, a mild processing delay, and with no idea of how to deal with it in a classroom. 

"She developed extreme anxiety around physically going to school, any sort of school work, and her friendships. Because of her lack of understanding and my lack of ability to homeschool, she flat out refused to do any school work some days. The days I got anything out of her, it would cause extreme meltdowns.

"She is now about 12 months behind her neurotypical peers in year two. And whilst she is coming along in leaps and bounds, she is still so far behind because the support she needed to begin her school journey wasn’t available because of COVID."  

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Kids are struggling.

Erin Pascall is the director of The Rumpus Room in Pelican, Lake Macquarie. She has noticed that many children like Tanya's daughter are struggling with emotional resilience and social engagement post-COVID.

"For children who missed or had disrupted engagement with peers in the first three years of their life, engaging with other children is both exciting and challenging," she tells Mamamia.

"We are seeing children struggle in their transition to school or desire to engage with their peers. While children often have ebbs and flows in their morning drop-offs, we have found recently that significant regressions are being seen in our three to four age group. 

"Some children, especially those with significant disruption to care or who have not yet accessed care, struggle to understand how to take the first steps towards engaging with their peers."

Mum Tanya says that her daughter's connection to her friends is one of the most noticeable issues.

"She and a lot of her peers struggle with basic friendship concepts such as differing opinions. Straight away, they assume that a disagreement means they aren’t friends anymore, and it sends them into a tailspin."

Kindergarten teacher Tia Smith* tells Mamamia how she has also noticed a huge difference in the kids starting school in 2022.

"One of the standout changes in behaviour I have noticed this year has been how children have gone from having short attention spans, to not understanding adults simply talking to them," Ms Smith says.

While she speculates it could be because adults have spent a lot of time in masks during their kids' infancy, it likely comes down to increased stress at home.

"I have noticed the change in listening skills and a drop in being able to follow any sort of instruction. Many cannot sit and listen to a picture book being read out.

"In my opinion, this change in behaviour is from parents being stressed and working from home (absolutely no judgment from me here) and parents just needing their kids to be occupied and not disrupting them." 

Parents are exhausted.

Parenting Coach and mum Mel Burgess says she has dealt with several stressed-out parents who are deeply concerned about how pandemic life has affected their kids in the longer term. 

"The constant sense of uncertainty about what the future holds has taken its toll," she tells Mamamia.

"We had to juggle isolation while grandparents and other supports became less available while they’ve needed to isolate and keep themselves safe.

"We are all out there doing our absolute best, but from a state of general all-permeating depletion."

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It's no wonder the kids are acting out. But she stresses parents must not blame themselves and remember that most were doing what we had to do to survive the hardest of times.

"There is a palpable physical and emotional fatigue in the air around any parent I work with.  

"Each person’s situation is different, but the commonality is that the past two years have taken quite the toll on us all and that parenting habits we picked up while we were in the thick of it (and which worked short term) are now causing quite the challenge.

"The most common example is giving into the child's demands just to keep the peace."

It might all start with peeling a second banana because the first one was 'yucky' to keep them quiet, but during the pandemic, Mel says that many parents began to 'over-cater' to their kids, which sent behaviour spiralling.

"The parent and child loop through this dynamic of the child grabbing for power and control over small things and the parent getting increasingly despondent and resentful that their child is growing up as an 'entitled brat'.

"The parent gets increasingly resentful at how much the child needs from them and how much time that takes while the child gets increasingly concerned at how hard it is to connect with the parent and so subconsciously does more of that non-useful behaviour to stay noticed.

"Everyone gets very tired."

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Where do we go from here?

The good news for parents is that while some kids' behaviour has worsened, experts believe that if we all work together, things will improve. Kindergarten teacher Tia Smith knows how hard it has been with the pandemic juggle.

"I think parents have done the best they could manage in a difficult situation. I think now is the time to spend quality time with kids again.

"Turn the computer off and make a point of having conversations. Sit down on the floor and play with them. If you are speaking to your kids, don’t have your phone in your hand at the same time. Make eye contact, model facial and body language when listening and talking to your children."

Erin Pascall, Director of Rumpus Room, believes a collaborative approach to helping our kids to overcome behavioural issues is best and that our collective experience during the pandemic is not all bad.

"In my professional experience, neither parents nor early educators have all the answers. I believe strongly in the timeless 'village approach' to raising children. If both educators and parents are willing to work together, we will be able to provide children with the capacity to realise individual resilience. 

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"The experiences of our children during the pandemic have also provided them with the ability to build their resilience and become experts in overcoming challenges, a huge benefit to the foundation for their future. 

She says too that parents need to stop over analysing every bad mood or episode and then blaming themselves.

"I feel that we, as a society, as parents, and as educators, need to change our rhetoric when discussing the challenges faced by children as we are placing significant blame on ourselves as parents. 

"In the past, parents were rarely aware of how their actions impact their children simply because it wasn’t a focus. We have now become hyperaware of what each individual action, tone of voice, and parenting approach might do to our children. I have had so many parents come to me concerned that the way they spoke to their child last Tuesday may be the root cause of why their child was sad on Thursday afternoon."

Be kind and parent on. 

Parenting coach Mel Burgess agrees, saying that we must remember to be kind to ourselves and each other while looking at ways we can improve our parenting in the longer term.

"No parent ever parented 'better' from berating themselves. Go gently with your judgements of yourself and others and marvel for a bit on what a big time in history we have just parented through.

"Then audit how much you are expecting of yourself. Write on a big piece of paper all that you are trying to do in a week and consider where your wriggle room is for slimming it down. We can only work with our actual capacity. Not our aspired-to capacity and not our pre-pandemic capacity.

"Also, having realistic expectations of yourself will give you room to have realistic expectations of your children and partner. You need more emotional bandwidth to long-game parent so your energy is being spent connecting with your kids in ways that are bolstering them to problem-solve for themselves and emotionally regulate in the way you wish they just could right now."

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Mum Tanya is hopeful for her daughter's future.

"In terms of her education, we are following the correct processes to get her psychometric assessments to ensure she gets the support that she needs to bring her in line with her peers.

"We have seen multiple specialists and are currently on the waiting list for an OT and she sees an incredible psychologist fortnightly, which has been so amazing for her anxiety. Whilst education isn’t her strong suit, she does multiple extra-curricular activities such as tennis, golf and gymnastics to ensure she builds her confidence outside of the education space."

Finally, Mel says to resist that urge to over cater to the kids. While it served parents during the intense pandemic years, it is better in the long-term to scale it back.

"Scrambling to keep kids always 'comfortable' actually escalates their sense of uneasiness.  

"Our kids are constantly gauging how secure they feel by how we are looking and acting. If we are giving off a sense that we don’t think they’ve got the resilience to cope, then that is how they grow to see themselves.

"Hold limits as clearly, calmly and kindly as you can manage. And do that early, before you start to feel revved up and emotional."

Has the pandemic affected your kids? Let us know in the comments below.

*While the women are known to Mamamia, names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Laura Jackel is Mamamia's Family Writer. For links to her articles and to see photos of her outfits and kids, follow her on Instagram and  TikTok.

Feature Image: Getty

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