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The Medical Minute: Solving ‘tantrum trouble’ for children, teens during COVID-19 quarantine

The pouting, the screaming, the crying – they’re all signs of a classic temper tantrum. Many parents currently at home with their children or teenagers 24/7 due to COVID-19-related stay-at-home guidelines know these behaviors all too well.

Like adults, children and adolescents mourn the lack of personal connection during the pandemic. “Younger children like to actively play together, so to them, an ‘online play date’ might seem too impersonal,” said Dr. Katherine Shedlock, a pediatrician with Penn State Children’s Hospital. And while teenagers regularly interact with their peers online, “they also crave—and miss—the socialization of participating in school and other favorite activities,” said Lisa Culler, a certified registered nurse practitioner with the Children’s Hospital.

When that mourning combines with boredom, children and teens act out. Younger children throw tantrums. Teenagers often rebel through isolation, ignoring social distancing recommendations or sneaking out to see friends.

Try these strategies to help curb negative behavior:

Ignore the tantrum. If a child’s tantrum isn’t causing danger to himself or other family members, ignoring it may help. “It helps a child understand they won’t get what they want from having a tantrum,” Shedlock said. However, ignoring may be difficult, especially if tantrums occur daily.

Ask a child to take “quiet time.” This is different from a time out. Pick a “quiet time” place, such as a child’s bedroom— and have the child routinely go there to calm down. “If a conflict escalates, taking a five- or 10-minute break to go to a room, calm down and regroup puts everyone in a better place to restart the discussion,” Culler said.

Use a “time out.” Shedlock recommends reserving time outs for young children when they display more severe behavior, such as hitting or biting. Have them sit in a specific spot without toys and base the length of a time out on your child’s age (for example, three minutes for a 3-year-old).

Create a new structure. If children or teens are sleeping in too long or staying up too late, they likely need more structure to their days. Keep sleep and wake times consistent. Try to eat together as a family. Schedule schoolwork and other tasks.

Seek compromise. Giving children and teens a sense of control of their routine can help ease their anxieties. “For example, if a teenager is staying up until 2 a.m. nightly and the parent wants a 10 p.m. bedtime, find a middle ground — like 11:30 p.m.,” Culler said.

Limit multitasking. Parents and children are skilled multitaskers. But when something is happening with your child or teen, “stop what you’re doing and give them your full focus,” Culler said. Listen to your child’s issues and stress that your main concern is for them and their well-being.

Lead by example. Stay positive. Reassure children and teens that the pandemic won’t last forever. Praise them when they display good behavior.

Limit news exposure. It’s important to stay informed about COVID-19 but watching news updates 24/7 could heighten anxiety for everyone.

Engage children in activities. Running out of ideas? Make and fly paper airplanes. Fly a kite. Get a bubble machine. Draw a hopscotch or obstacle course in the driveway with chalk. Walk. Run. Watch a kid-themed yoga or exercise video. Try safe online science experiments. Build a birdhouse. Repaint or rearrange a bedroom. Teach life skills – riding a bike, managing money, cooking or baking.

Seek help. If tantrums don’t stop or behavior turns to self-harm or isolation, talk with a professional. School counselors are a good option. So too are therapists or counselors with Penn State Children’s Hospital, who are available for in-person or telemedicine visits.

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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