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Source: Massey University

Some children may react to life under lockdown with different behaviour (photo credit/Caleb Woods on Unsplash)

Children need reassurance and routine to help them adjust and cope with life under COVID-19 lockdown, and parents need to be flexible and responsive to possible behaviour changes in their youngsters, says a Massey University psychologist.

School of Psychology senior lecturer in clinical psychology Dr Kirsty Ross says as the initial novelty of the situation wears off and people’s tolerance wears thin, signs of distress or discomfort can emerge. “Keeping the lines of communication and connection going with your children is really important as they may adjust well initially – with some excitement and even enjoyment of having extra time at home, but they may find it more challenging as time goes on.”

Young people can respond differently in times of distress, she says. “This varies by age and developmental stage, with younger children having more magical and imaginative thinking. Older children have more awareness and knowledge of the issues our communities are facing – which brings up a lot of emotions for them.”

Children can show their distress and adjustment through different behaviours and emotions:  

–       they can become a bit clingier and need more attention 

–       others can become irritable, grumpy and on edge

–       others may regress in their behaviour (such as start wetting the bed, wanting to sleep with their parents or talking in a more childlike way)

–       some may be more anxious and express fear and worries, for their health and the health of others close to them

–       others can try to seek a lot of information (ask a lot of questions, reassurance-seeking), in the pursuit of trying to understand and feel secure 

–       some may even pretend nothing is different (avoid talking and thinking about it) as it is too difficult and scary

Dr Ross says all of these responses are attempts to feel secure, gain a sense of control, and manage emotions in the face of a very difficult situation for everyone, including adults. 

Clinical psychologist Dr Kirsty Ross.

Noticing changes in behaviour 

“Pointing out that you have noticed a change, and asking more about it helps children know that in the midst of a crisis, there are adults paying attention to them, looking out for them, and keeping boundaries around them, which helps them feel more secure,” says Dr Ross.

Validating children’s emotions and empathising helps children feel understood and less alone which helps reduce their distress. “This involves helping them name how they are feeling, understand that these feelings are in response to a very new situation, normalising those feelings and ensuring that people know no feeling is “wrong” in this situation. 

Validating and empathising with feelings does not mean children have free reign to behave as they please. “Some testing behaviours can be a child’s way of checking out whether the rules still apply – they feel reassured to know that breaking the rules means the same consequences!

“However, some flexibility is also key, rather than rigidly sticking to how things have always been done. This is a situation none of us have found ourselves in before. You might have had clear limits on device use previously, so understanding that this needs to be loosened somewhat to enable children to stay connected to their friends, teachers and things that are meaningful to them will help your and their sanity!”

It is vital to keep some things predictable and consistent – including having chores, the same family rules and values, routines and consequences for behaviour, says Dr Ross.


Feeling a sense of some sort of control and retaining some familiarity helps us gain a sense of direction. In the midst of many choices being removed, having some choices is still important – even if it is what jersey you wear today, or what order you do your schoolwork in, she says.

“This is not just ‘staying home on the couch’, as a number of experts have pointed out,” she adds. “For many, this time at home in our bubbles involves emotional, physical and spiritual sacrifices.”

“Validating this is really important; people need to be able to mourn the loss of how things used to be, and it is ok to be anxious about what comes next – not just once the rāhui has lifted, but as the world re-settles into something that may look quite different. Sharing these feelings helps people to feel they are not alone, but it is important that people do not ramp up other’s distress by catastrophising.”

Communicating and connecting with kids

Keep communication and connection going by asking what your children are doing online – ensure they are not looking at information that is inappropriate, or that they might find overwhelming or frightening, Dr Ross recommends.  “Young children don’t need a lot of information – just the basics ­– ‘there is a virus in our community that can make people really sick, so staying home keeps the virus from being able to move around and helps us stay well’. Give a piece of information, answer any questions and ask if there is anything else they need to know.” 

Calm and self-care for adults 

During times of crisis, children need reassurance and calm reactions, so it is important adults are able to model good coping strategies such as: looking after your physical self – eating well, keeping your body moving, sleeping well, keeping hydrated; keeping your brain occupied – reading, music, schoolwork, tv programmes, YouTube; keeping social connections going; take time to find a rhythm and balance between routine and flexibility, and balance time apart and time to connect – it is normal to get one each other’s’ nerves a little without a break from each other! 

“Finally, if you as an adult are struggling, please ask for support, talk to your friends and whānau and be kind to yourself,” Dr Ross urges. “To help our young people, you need to have the energy and resources to be able to respond to their needs and that means looking after yourself too.”