As adults, we are emotional equipped to handle stressful, worrying and frightening situations. We can recognise, compartmentalise and logically engage these situations. Certainly, we don’t want to; but as adults, we know that it is our responsibility to do so.
Can you imagine, though, how it would feel to see these negative events going on around us, affecting our entire world and the people we care about, but not being able to truly understand what is happening or why? To feel like you have no control, no stability and no end of this upheaval in sight?
For many children, it can feel this way. The upheaval itself could be something as unthreatening as moving house or a routine change due to a parent getting a new job. Or, it could be far more negative, such as a family member needing to spend time in hospital.
This is what recently happened to us.
Our youngest, Rhyd, is just 10 months and recently went down with a chest infection. After a few days of antibiotics, it was clear he was getting worse not better, so I was forced to pack the changing bag full of snacks and toys and head up to A+E.
It turned out that the chest infection was actually Bronchiolitis, which had hit our poor baby so hard he was not able to get enough oxygen by himself.
So he was admitted to the children’s ward for the foreseeable future, as he simply could not fight this thing on his own. They strapped a nasal canula with an oxygen flow to his face, strapped a monitor to his big toe and gave me a fold out bed so that I could stay with him.
I was feeling worried, stressed, mum-guilt and a bunch of other things. The whole time Gray was exceptionally well behaved. Sitting mostly quietly and patiently, taking everything in without acting out. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t really notice this until later, I was so distracted by worry for the baby.
A few hours after we first arrived at A+E Husband was able to come up to the hospital and take Gray home, give him lunch then drop him at nursery. (The only part of his routine that wasn’t destroyed!)
The next day his grandparents brought Gray up for about half an hour to visit in the morning, before taking him to lunch and then nursery again.
The following day I called husband first thing and told him I needed a break. The hospital stay looked like it would last at least another few nights and I was exhausted, who can sleep on hospital wards, anyway? So loud and bright!
Husband told me he would bring Gray so that I could them take him to feed the ducks, take him to lunch and then drop him at nursery. He said that he had been acting out, getting emotional over tiny things. I realised this had all hit him pretty hard and we hadn’t really noticed, too worried about our own thoughts and feelings.
‘Rhyd will be fine’ we had told him ‘The doctors are making him better.’ It was all well and good to say but kids are sensitive and intelligent in ways we often overlook.
Knowing something will get better doesn’t always make it easier to cope with at the time, even for adults.
When I took him to lunch he just about broke my heart.
‘Why are you sad today, Mum?’ He asked me out of nowhere, ‘is it ‘cos Rhyds poorly?’
I almost cried. I had to choke back tears as I forced a smile. ‘I’m sorry, baby.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m worried and stressed and tired and feel poorly, but Rhyd is going to be just fine. I’m just tired baby, you are so sweet.’
I took him to nursery with surprisingly little complaint, the ladies assured me he had been just fine while there, which reassured me that we were making the right decision not to disrupt his routine.
That night he slept in my bed, which I think we both needed.
We were lucky enough to be surprised with an earlier release, on the evening of what we’d expected to be our fourth night. Rhyd had bounced back with an amazing recovery. The difference seeing him healthy again was shocking, it made me realise just how ill he had been.
Unfortunately, in the days following both Husband and myself had to pop out for various reasons. Job interviews for Husband, doctors’ appointments for me. (Thank you, stress, for destroying my immune system!)
Each time we tried to leave the house, Gray got upset. He would play up, start to cry, telling us he didn’t want us to go, begging us to stay. Even if we explained it was only going to be quick.
It got me thinking about his behaviour these past two weeks, since the beginning of the hospital stay.
It became clear, once it was put into context, that it had stemmed from struggling to emotionally comprehend what was happening. He had felt a loss of stability and control.
I have put together a list of behaviours we have noted, I hope that this list can help others who might have a child going through something similar.
Hyperactivity – vying for attention
One way Gray has always let us know he needs us is by making it clear he is trying to get our attention.
Having a stressful week there have been moments we have been discussing plans over his head while he has been bored, ignored and confused. It has quickly been made apparent he needs to be considered when he starts trying to get our attention.
He usual does this using some sort of silliness, such as suddenly jumping up and performing a random ‘dance’ while ‘singing’ a made-up nonsense song. When I was distracted from a conversation about hospital care by Gray desperately dancing in front of me, I knew I had failed to see that he needed some attention. He just needed to feel included.
It can be easy to snap ‘stop that’ and go back to your conversation when you’re exhausted and grumpy, but keep in mind, all they want is to be seen. They just want you know they’re still there and reassure them that you care.
Whinging-whining – being overly emotional
Whining is something that really gets on my nerves, I’ll admit. I have no tolerance for it.
If Gray starts whining at me that I have given him his purple cup instead of his pink cup, my usual response is ‘that’s the cup you’re getting, you can have the other cup next time.’ His usual response is a sigh and that’s about it.
I am certainly not the sort of Mum to remake a new dinner every time he says he doesn’t want something I’ve made (that he has usually asked for!)
This approach has worked well for us. Gray is not by nature a picky or fussy child. However, when he is stressed, unwell or tired, the whining comes out.
One way we knew the hospital stay was really affecting him was, Daddy informed me, that he was getting frustrated over silly little things. Every tiny thing had become a disaster of epic proportions.
Apparently, those first few nights, he was getting emotional over nothing at all. The usual ‘aww…’ and acceptance that would be his response to hearing he had to wait until after his dinner to eat a sweet treat was met by tears, ‘NO!’ and obviously misdirected anger.
Often times we see these over blown reactions when kids are tired. If your kids have no excuse to be tired but you’ve been having a stressful time, take a moment to consider: they may not be physically tired, but how emotionally exhausting can these situations be, even for adults? Kids feel a surprising amount of our stress, just from being around us.
Clinginess- Separation Anxiety
This one has manifested since returning home. We were released pretty late, about 7pm in fact. So both kids had a late bedtime that night.
The following day, it was clear stress had taken a toll on my immune system, I had to go back to the doctors. First thing in the morning Husband also had an interview.
So. We had been back less than 12 hours, even, before suddenly Daddy was leaving again and then so was Mummy. Gray got upset both times, he usually understands when we tell him we’ll be right back, but it was clear he was scared we would be gone all night again.
I made sure to reassure him I wasn’t going back to the hospital.
Only… Later that same day, Daddy had to go back to the hospital, to have the MRI he had scheduled thanks to a funny turn a few months earlier.
The Inlaws popped round before this, so that we could pop to the shop to restock a few bits quickly. So that’s four times one or both of us had to leave him during the day we were finally home. I felt awful realising this, it was unusual even on a normal day, but it was clear it was affecting him.
‘Tomorrow,’ I told Husband, ‘We need to do something nice for him, as a family, all together.’ I knew it was highly unlikely to be anything spectacular, but considering we’d been all over the place and he’d not really had either of us to properly play with, we knew he just needed some extra attention. Going back to work for me on the Sunday was just as bad, but we couldn’t afford the luxury of calling in sick again.
If you notice your child is unusually clingy, take a step back and ask yourself, how much have I actually seen them/played with them while all this has been going on? It’ll soon become obvious why they’re out of sorts.
Messed up eating/drinking habits/routine
This one didn’t hit us so hard, but it can be a big one for some. We did notice that Gray suddenly decided he didn’t want anything to eat at certain meals. His ‘lunch’ on that first day home was a sliced apple, which is much less than usual.
However, once I had returned from the doctors and fetched myself something, he immediately decided he was hungry and that he wanted ‘the same as Mummy’.
This is connected to the ‘clingy’ behaviour, of course.
As adults we often find our appetite messed up by stress. Husband and I have opposite reactions. While sitting at Rhyds bedside in hospital, bored, uncomfortable and worried, I just wanted to snack constantly. I was bored, so I was hungry, that’s how it goes for me.
Husband, however; when he took his turn he didn’t want food at all. He had maybe one sandwich and a bag of crisps to last a whole day.
Kids also have these sorts of responses to stressful situations. Gray seemed to lose his appetite for the most part, but it returned once Mummy was with him again. A clear sign of what was bothering him.
Defiance – ‘Naughty’ Behaviour
Sometimes, kids express themselves in a way that isn’t obviously related to the situation.
Maybe their response to separation anxiety is not to beg Mummy to stay but to start hitting Daddy once Mummy has left. Maybe they don’t vocalise their loss of appetite but instead, throw their food all over the place when presented with it.
It can be so, so hard as a parent to recognise the reason for ‘naughty’ behaviour in the moment. It is even harder to do when you’re tired, grumpy and stressed out yourself.
Sometimes, we just have to accept that we’re going to miss the cues and end up disciplining before we see the ‘naughty’ behaviour for what it is; a cry for help.
Once we recognise it, however, we can sit down and talk to them.
The best approach I have found with Gray is to be honest. I tell him how I am feeling, hold myself accountable and apologise if I’ve been ‘grumpy’. I let him know that it’s okay if he’s been feeling ‘grumpy’ too.
It was important to me to explain that certain situations, like the one we just went through, can be unpleasant but they are only temporary. I emphasised that everything was okay now, we were all back together. Rhyd was well and we won’t be sleeping in the hospital again.
Of course, this can take a few days at least to kick in. Kids need to see to believe this sort of thing, so don’t be surprised if ‘naughty’ behaviour keeps cropping up more than usual for a week or two.
All they need from you is reassurance, love, and attention.
What do you think? Have you noticed these behaviours from your kids in response to certain changes? Can you think of anything that might be useful to add to this list? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!