COVID-19 has brought plenty of stress to all of us: masks, social distancing, closures, and shelter-in-place recommendations. Now, the school year is almost upon us, the pandemic is raging, and politicians, pundits, pediatricians, and public health officials are arguing about whether children should go back to (physical) school. No sense making it easy on the parents, right?

Your child is probably even more stressed than you are. Why? Imagine feeling all the stress you’re feeling, but with less control over the outcomes. If your child is “acting out,” it might not be intentional misbehavior – it might be feelings of stress or anxiety being expressed through misbehavior. Sure, you can ask about your child’s feelings, but most likely, you’ll hear an answer designed to please you rather than inform you. Therefore, understanding misbehavior can be the best way of learning what your child is actually feeling.

Signs of Anxiety in Your Child

We grownups often have a tough time expressing our feelings (remember the first time you said, “I love you”?) For children, it’s even tougher. Your child’s mind is still under development. Emotional expression and self-regulation are still coming online for K-6 age children, and expressing feelings with nuance and insight comes later still. As a result, most children communicate their feelings through behaviors.

What behaviors might indicate anxiety? Is she asking more questions than usual? Is he talking back more? Is she bored? Are they fighting more? Is he regressing? Is she withdrawn? Irritable? Edgy? Clingy? Refusing to talk about going back to school? Any of these behaviors could be signs of anxiety (and/or other emotions).

Worried Feelings Make Worried Behaviors

If you’re seeing these sorts of behaviors in your child, it could mean that he or she is worried about going back to school. To understand how to respond, it is necessary to make a fine distinction: it’s not going back to school making your child act out. It’s her thoughts about going back to school that are making her anxious, which in turn is making her act out. The behaviors/symptoms you’re seeing are her emotional system’s attempts to get back to a secure emotional place. To address the misbehaviors, you must address the root cause: an unmet need for safety and security, which is driving anxious thoughts.

What You Can Do

Anxiety is thinking (worrying) about the unknown. If you can teach your child “how to make the unknown, known,” your child will learn to manage his own anxiety.

When we’re anxious, we look for where the danger is, and where the safety is. Answering those questions helps us get control of ourselves. This skill, which you have learned instinctively, is a skill you can teach your child to help manage his anxiety. To start, think carefully about what you’re seeing your child doing and figure out if he is looking at danger, or is he looking for safety.

If he is asking questions, talking back, edgy, irritable, or fighting, he is probably focused on the threat. If he’s withdrawn, regressing, or clingy, he’s probably seeking safety.

Gain an Understanding

As mentioned above, addressing the behavior requires understanding the unmet need driving negative thoughts. If your child is responding to fear, ask questions that help you identify what your child seems to be afraid of. The first answers you get may require some follow ups to get to the root of the issue. For example, if your child says she is worried about going back to school, follow-up to get a more specific answer. What is the actual threat? Talk out the unknowns. She might say she doesn’t want to wear a mask all day. She might be worried that her friends won’t like her anymore.

Once you understand the thought behind the fear, you can focus on it. Alternatively, if your child is seeking safety, focus on steps he can take to stay safe. Make a plan. What can he do? Make sure he has the “resources” he needs to feel safe. Either way, remember that your conversation needs to be short and focused. If it goes long, and you find yourself making promises you’re not sure you can keep, you may be addressing your own needs instead of your child’s.

If All Else Fails

If your child is still acting out, or if you find that you’re having problems managing your own anxiety, it may be time to seek professional help. Happy parenting!