Behavior is often a child’s attempt to cope and your job is to do the detective work to find out what underlies the behavior change. The following considerations are good places to start:
Sleep Cycle- This is a primary area for consideration. Your child may now have to get up earlier to go to school or may stay up later in order to get homework done, or to see daddy get home from work. Maybe she has a hard time ‘winding down’ at nights to fall asleep. Toddlers need 12-14 hours per night, school-aged kids 10-12 hours and teens need 8-9 hours. Hours can’t be ‘banked’ by sleeping more on the weekend.
Eating Cycle- A change in diet can have an impact on behavior. Perhaps your child is not ready to eat in the mornings before school and ends up waiting until lunch. Maybe he doesn’t get to finish his lunch or doesn’t eat a full school lunch. Parents’ work schedule has changed and now dinner is later in the evening. You may also consider a change in diet such as moving to a school lunch or snacks from vending machines. You’ll want to pack snacks and lunches that contain foods that give sustained energy.
Change in primary relationships- Decreased availability, such as a parent having a new job or job that keeps you at work longer resulting in less time with your child. Your relationship provides the primary sense of security and attachment and less time together may result in changes in your child’s behavior. When you have a demanding schedule, you want to carve out designated time daily with your child with the focus of sharing pleasurable activities together. Discord and separation of parents can cause big feelings and confusion for children and is likely to result in some behavior changes. Counseling may be a good support. Children are also affected by close grandparents, aunties or uncles moving away.
Changes in Routine- Routine is the foundation for the child feeling like their world is predictable and secure; knowing what is coming up in the day helps the child to feel regulated. Changes in routine may include changes in school, home or after school routines. A change may be as subtle as your child’s bus coming 15 minutes earlier, making the morning routine rushed and chaotic. It may include someone staying at your home, which may change different parts of the home routine. A substitute teacher or rotating schedule may feel disorganizing for your child.
Stressors- This includes positive or negative stressors. Positive stressors could be an exciting trip, event or visitor that is coming up. Negative stressors may be an upcoming test, or school demands. Your child’s social life at school can fluctuate and feel stressful. If you suspect behavior is coming from school demands, you’ll want to develop close communication with your child’s teacher to monitor and problem solve together. Homework is another stressor that often increases with each grade and may impact how your child is feeling (i.e. overwhelmed), and thus behaving. Decreasing stressors as well as increasing physical activities and breaks may improve behavior.
Illness- When your child doesn’t feel well, it may show through behavior. Allergies for example, can impact how alert vs. “in a fog” a child feels, which may have a snowball effect of impacting school performance and self-esteem. You’ll also want to monitor that your child is eliminating consistently as “holding” can result in physical discomfort. Medication, even over the counter, can have side effects. If you see behavior changes that you suspect are related to physical discomfort, you may want to check in with your pediatrician.
Originally published in Maui Family Magazine.