Understanding Changes in Children’s Behavior
Some parents may find that their children become especially sensitive or difficult to manage in new situations, such as when they have visitors or are traveling. Let’s explore possible causes of overly sensitive (withdrawn, worried or fearful) and reactive (defiant, irritable or unruly) behaviors. While this deeper understanding of behavior is not limited to traveling, we will use the emergence of new behaviors while traveling as an example.
In its simplest form, anxiety is a general word for an emotion a child experiences when something feels uncomfortable or unsafe. For young children, safety comes in many forms, including the safety they feel from their parents’ comfort and the predictability of their daily routine. Some children feel less safe when they are faced with unknown or unpredictable situations. Feelings of anxiety can even occur in the most loving and supportive families, as anxiety is often a state of mind and, as such, a complex interplay between the environment (reality) and the child’s mind (fantasy).
Here are some examples:
Five-year-old Sally’s family has been preparing for a trip to visit her grandparents. As they have been counting down the days, Sally has started to act like she did when she was much younger. She carries her blanket around, rarely leaves her mother’s side and is generally clingier, especially at bedtime. Sally’s mother can’t figure out what has caused this regression. Understandably, she hasn’t considered the idea that it is the upcoming trip, since Sally is quite fond of her grandparents and has even said she cannot wait to see them.
Five-year-old Mary’s family is preparing for a trip to a theme park. Mary, who usually talks excitedly about the trip, has had trouble paying attention in school. Mary’s mother has wondered if she’s just overly excited, but other behaviors cast some doubt. At home, Mary has called her mother names and has been especially defiant and wound up around bedtime. In such moments, she says the theme park will be boring and stupid. Mary’s parents have tried everything they can think of to discourage these behaviors, but they only seem to make Mary act out more.
In both cases, the parents have noticed a change in their child’s behavior and, in some ways, the behaviors are inconsistent with each other (excitement and reluctance, for instance). When such changes occur, it can be helpful to consider whether something in the child’s life is different. Positive experiences, such as a trip to a relative’s house or theme park, can stir questions in a child’s mind that may not naturally occur to an adult, such as “Will mommy still tuck me in?” “Will I like grandma’s food?” “Will I be good?” “Will it be fun like I hope and imagine?”
In many cases, such worries can be dispelled with understanding and thoughtful conversations. Children benefit from parents who can help them recognize that changes in their behavior often have something to do with how they feel on the inside.
Once parents reflect on the circumstances that might be causing the changes, they can begin to talk about what they see. In doing so, parents not only help organize their child’s behaviors and feelings, but also open up the opportunity to think together about how their child feels in various situations. Both Sally’s and Mary’s parents can start by saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been acting a little different lately. I know our trip is coming up soon. You might be excited, but you might also have some questions about what it will be like. I can tell you more about that.”
If you have unanswered questions about your child’s ability to cope with the ups and downs of life, read “Helping with Attention-Seeking Behaviors” at lucydanielscenter.org/page/helping-with-attention-seeking-behaviors.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.