Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

My son is having emotional and behavioral issues after I went back to work and our family pet died. What do you suggest?

When things change it can feel scary

Janine Domingues, PhD
Janine Domingues, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My oldest son has been having emotional and behavioral issues at home and at school. He is talking with a therapist at school once a week, however I don't think it's helping much. Today as I was dropping him off at school he would not go inside — refused to get out of the vehicle. I got him to walk inside half way to his classroom, then he stopped in the hallway, stood behind a pillar and would not budge.I have recently gone from being full-time at-home mom to working full-time, and dad has taken over that role since March when he was laid off from his job. Several months before this one of our family pets, Dahli, was tragically hit by a car and passed. All of a sudden my son has been crying at random times throughout his day at school, and when asked why he states that he misses Dahli. However lately he has also been very defiant, fighting and arguing with brothers more than usual.Dad is set to start a new job soon and we would like some help with dealing with our son. We have talked with him about it and he gets very emotional. We do our best to let him know that nothing changes, and dad and mom will always have time for him. What do you suggest?

In a short period of time your family has experienced several stressful changes. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your family pet Dahli. Pets are beloved members of the family and when they die both children and adults can feel a tremendous loss — especially when it happens suddenly. Feeling sad, scared, irritable, and worried are common reactions associated with the grieving process. Additionally, the change of you and your husband going back to work may also be triggering another sense of loss for your son. Multiple stressful events can sometimes compound common reactions children experience when dealing with change.

It is wonderful that you are providing space for your son to talk with you. Taking that time to provide him with reassurance that you and your husband will always be there for him will help him feel secure. You can also help your son understand that the emotions he’s experiencing are normal and that when things change it can feel really scary. When he does become emotional during your talks, you can model for him how to stay calm and assure him that you have a plan to help him through this transitional time. Avoiding talking and thinking about a stressful event will only maintain feelings of being stuck, so I encourage you to continue to have that time with your son to help him process the change.

Having and sticking to a routine is really helpful when kids are feeling unsettled. As your family is transitioning to a new schedule with both parents going back to work, it will be most important to have a specific plan for routine. Provide your son with a sense of predictability by letting him know what the plan will look like and what is expected of him. Continue to reassure him of this plan especially as the time gets closer to your husband going back to work. Include special time with your son in your routine to help strengthen the feeling of security.

I think that it’s great that he’s receiving support from a therapist at school. The therapist can also help his teacher understand that routine and predictability is important for him at school as he is coping with change. In addition to supports at school, it sounds like your son would benefit from having extra skills that will help him manage his emotions and behaviors. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help your son understand the connection between his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Skills in each domain will provide him with an understanding of what to expect and how to cope in the moment to make him feel more in control.

You might also want to do parent training with a therapist. Besides providing you with skills to manage behavioral issues at home, parent training will teach you how to become aware of your own reactions. Kids take cues from their parents on how to respond to things, so if you are calm and in control during the transitions your family is experiencing, you will be able to help smooth potential bumps along the road.