How do you manage fighting kids during a lockdown? We asked the experts

Many of us need parenting advice as we try to work from home and juggle homeschooling, meal prep and family dynamics while worrying what to do when the toilet paper runs out.

(CNN)As the nation shuts down and loved ones huddle to weather what may well be weeks of coronavirus-induced isolation, family tensions are rising.

Like a canary in a coal mine, children are often the first to respond negatively to any strain on the family unit -- so parents, don't be surprised if your children are already fussing and fighting at levels well above their normal sibling squabbles.
"Sometimes parents feel like, 'Oh my God, like, how could you guys be having this argument right now? Like right now when I'm in this moment of, like, panic about the coronavirus? What is wrong with you?' " said pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Here at CNN, many of us are parents too. Just like you, we are staring in shock and awe at our children as their tempers explode. Just like you, we need parenting advice as we try to work from home and juggle homeschooling, meal prep and family dynamics while worrying what to do when the toilet paper runs out.
    That's why we reached out to top experts on child development to ask them this simple question for us all: "Please, can you help?"

    Take your own emotional temperature

    "First of all, if parents are acting stressed and anxious and fighting, the kids are going to do that too," said pediatrician Dr. Tanya Altmann, editor-in-chief of the American Academy of Pediatrics' book "Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 and The Wonder Years."
    "The first thing is to take a look at how you're behaving as parents in your house," Altmann said. "A lot of times when a household is chaotic, it's because of what's coming from the parents."
    What if you're not aware of being outwardly anxious?
    "Check in with your body," suggests Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan with a pediatric sub-specialty in childhood developmental behavior.
    "And I don't mean like fever, cough; I mean like are you feeling your heart pounding more in your chest? Are you feeling tightness in your muscles? Are you getting more headaches? Are you having more trouble sleeping? Are you feeling more of an upset stomach?
    "These are all the ways stress affects our body's systems that we may not even be aware of because you get so used to this kind of chronic hypervigilance," Radesky said.
    "Checking in with your emotions and making sure you're dealing with them in a healthy way will be the first preventative step towards eliminating lots of kid arguments," she added.

    Check your child's emotional temperature

    How can you tell if it's stress that may be driving your child's negative behavior?
    "Are your kids kind of showing their usual stress behaviors?" Radesky asked. "Some kids get really defiant, others get more controlling or repetitive, always wanting to do the same thing the same way. Still other kids get clingy.
    "My kids are like, 'Can we just play video games all day? Let us, like, zone out and not have to think about all this stuff.' And it's really tempting to want to just let them zone out. But we have to talk about it at some point each day," Radesky said.
    Kids may be especially concerned how you, the parent, may respond.
    "They know that we will be yelling at them a little bit more easily, or start might start nitpicking with things they are doing and reacting strongly," Radesky said.
    "When we're talking developmentally about kids, they don't have the internal resources that we do to manage this level of stress and frustration," said psychologist Vaile Wright​, director of clinical research at the American Psychological Association.
    "So that's how it ends up manifesting itself -- in arguments -- because they don't know how else to express what they're going through," Wright​ said.
    "Parents also need to remember that adult conversations need to be held after kids are in bed and cannot listen, because kids are always listening and aware," Altmann stressed.
    "All of these steps, like parents pausing and self-regulating, and trying to understand what's driving the kids' behaviors, are techniques parents have told me in clinical practice really do help," Radesky added. "It's just so much harder to access those skills when you are wound really tight with just the panic that's going around right now."
    Whatever you do, communicate carefully to your kids about the coronavirus, Wright stressed.
    "It's incredibly critical for parents to be honest in their communication, to not lie about how serious this is, but to also model a sense of calm or a sense of resilience during this situation," she advised. "If you panic, they're going to panic."

    Dealing with a meltdown

    What's some of the best ways to cope with an escalating outbreak of sibling anger?
    Take a time out: No one is ever too old to take a time out, experts say (even parents).
    "They can take a breather, bring their emotions back down," Wright said. "Because it's really hard to have a constructive conversation when your emotions are particularly heightened."
    Use "I" statements: "Then you'd want to have them come back and, very similar to how you would want adults to resolve arguments, you would encourage them to do things like speak in what we call 'I' statements. So instead of saying things like, 'You took my such and such,' an 'I' statement might be, 'I felt really hurt when I saw that you took such and such," Wright explained.
    In psychology, 'I' statements are often used to defuse arguments -- and later keep them from starting at all.
    Coronavirus home lockdown is not all fun and games, but for families, you need fun, and games help