By Elizabeth Richards, MS, Early Care and Education
Your child’s behavior has high and low points at any time of the year, but in the cold winter months, when outdoor time may be limited and screen usage often increases, things may feel like they’re reaching an all-time low.
It’s important to remember that behavior is always about communication. What is your child trying to tell you? What do they need that they might not be getting enough of right now? There may be several causes of increased behavior challenges: not enough active play; cold, dark days; using screens to fill the hours; increased consumption of sugar and simple carbohydrates; and less individual attention, especially if you struggle with depression or lethargy this time of year.
Strategies for managing undesired behavior are similar year-round, but in the winter months, when cabin fever may be setting in, it can be challenging to maintain some of these strategies.
Look for creative ways to continue focusing on what works. Below are some
• Stay active. Behavior challenges will increase if your child doesn’t have appropriate outlets for their energy. If they aren’t participating in organized athletics, be sure you offer plenty of opportunities to run, jump, climb, and expend pent-up energy. If the weather prevents you from heading outside as often as you’d like, try indoor
trampoline parks, open gym times, pools, or climbing gyms. Even a walk through an indoor mall can help.
• Enjoy all that winter has to offer. Speaking of weather, remember that with the right gear, outdoor play is certainly possible – and a great way to keep your children (and yourself) active. Maine as so many great activities to offer outdoors in the winter. WinterKids is a non-profit organization that offers a wealth of resources to families around staying active and healthy outdoors. An added bonus to heading outdoors that sunshine helps your body produce Vitamin D, a natural mood booster!
• Stick to screen time limits. It can be tempting to relax your boundaries around time when it’s cold, dark, and you’re cooped up inside. However, research has linked excessive screen time to anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior – so it’s important to hold steady on the guidelines that have worked well for your family. If you are allowing more screen time than usual, be sure to onitor closely what happens before and after your child engages with screens. Does it calm them, or ramp them up? Are/ there more outbursts after using a screen for an extended amount of time? Do certain types of screen use cause bigger issues? Knowing the answers will help you determine if it’s time to pull back.
• Eat well. The winter months are filled with holidays that can shift eating habits, and a tendency to consume more “comfort foods” which may be laden with sugar and simple carbohydrates (like white flour, pasta and/or rice). Keep an eye on what your child is eating, and offer plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates. Treats are fine once in a while, but when they become the norm, behavior challenges can increase.
• Be positive and responsive in your interactions with your child. This doesn’t mean giving in to all of your child’s demands to keep the peace; it’s all about balancing the needs of the child with your own in a kind, compassionate way. When challenging behavior occurs, pause and try to determine what the underlying need is. For instance, if your child is clinging and whining, they may be letting you know they need some focused play time with you. Calmly let them know you see their need and will meet it as soon as possible. You might say, “I can see you want to spend some time with me. I’m making lunch right now, but after we eat, let’s play a game together.”
• Reframe the way you think about the behaviors. How we perceive our children’s behavior can have a big impact on how we respond to them. So if you catch yourself thinking “Why are they trying to drive me crazy?” pause for a moment to shift that perception. Wondering “What does my child need?” will help you look for solutions, instead of just reacting to the difficult behavior.
• Offer a safe outlet for big feelings. When cabin fever sets in, your own emotions may also shift. As an adult, you’ve developed strategies for managing those feelings, but your child may need a lot of support. When big feelings emerge, hold space for them, whatever they are. Respond with empathy and compassion, while still holding appropriate boundaries. For example, if your child explodes with rage because screen time is over, you can say “I know you love to play that game, and you’re upset that your time is up. You can be upset, but I can’t let you throw things at me. Do you want me to sit with you, or give you some space?”
The long winter months can leave everyone on edge, but with compassion, understanding, and a willingness to look at the emotions behind the behavior, you can guide these behaviors to a better place – for you and your child!
Elizabeth Richards has been an early childhood professional for nearly 30 years. She is a preschool teacher, freelance writer, and early childhood trainer. She has led parent workshops and developed courses for ECE professionals, particularly around managing challenging behaviors, art, and play. She has two teenage sons.