Back-to-school season is the perfect time to think about how change impacts children, how to help them through it, and the positives that come when kids learn to be flexible and resilient.
Humanity is naturally comfortable with routine. We are confident in our ability to get through the day when we have done it all before. We are secure, and safe. We don’t have to particularly think about anything. To varying degrees, we all like to know what to expect–whole books are written about it!
This need for routine and stability is far more pronounced in a child. A toddler has no real sense of time–they live in the moment, and the future is a complete unknown. Older kids may have a better sense of time, but surprises can still incite strong emotion. Teens have so many changes going on already that seemingly small transitions can make them feel overwhelmed and out of control.
Yet change is inevitable, and the pace of change increases every day. Parents today change jobs and geography more than did any previous generation; divorce is more common; the 24 hour cycle flings news at us continuously from around the planet.
Improvements in technology and rapid changes in our cultures remake our world the minute we turn our backs. So…
How to help children cope with change:
- Be a good example. If you take things in stride and don’t appear worried or scared, they will imitate your reaction.
- Build strong relationships. If they know they are loved and secure, a move or loss will not be so overwhelming.
- Stay Healthy. Eat nutritious food, exercise, and get enough sleep. Everything is easier to deal with if you feel good and are not tired.
- Warn them that change is coming. Imagine if even something as wonderful as Christmas happened without advance warning. There’s a tree in the living room, Dad is dressed up in a crazy suit, everyone is excited, and all the normal routines are suspended. Scary stuff! Let them know what is coming, and give them time to process.
- Explain what is happening, and why it is happening, at their developmental level. Answer their questions. Give them information about the changes that are coming, and explore the possibilities. Imagine the good things that could happen as a result of the change as well as the bad and scary stuff.
- Keep to routines when you can. Morning regimens, family meals, and bedtime routines are the foundation of a good day. Nothing feels safer than snuggling up with someone who loves you and a bedtime story.
- Allow them their feelings. Don’t discount them. If the thing they are angry about the most with Grandma’s death is that no one will give them Tootsie Rolls anymore, nod solemnly and say you understand.
- Expect bad behavior. Kids will regress with transitions, and will act out if they feel insecure. Discipline them in exactly the same way you would have before the change, because if they get away with bad behavior it will heighten their anxiety. If they still get a time out for saying that bad word, then things must not be that different. Bad behavior successfully disciplined establishes new borders and validates their security.
- Let them have an impact on the change. Let them choose some flowers for an event, or the color of their new room for a move. Humans feel better when they have done something, no matter how small. Action shrinks fear.
- Carve out time every day for a little one-on-one. ‘Nuf said.
- Allow time for relaxation and fun. Laugh. Listen to music. Renee Jain, MAPP has a few excellent mindfulness activities for children here. I especially like her practice of “dissolving a thought.” Kids can devolve into what is called catastrophic thinking and spiral downward into a place where nothing is right with the world, and nothing ever will be. Mindfulness practice can stop that spiral and bring them back into the moment.
- Avoid activities that increase stress, like competitive sports or games. This is not the time to play Monopoly. Simplify your schedule, and let things go.
Change is inevitable; learning to deal with it is a necessary skill. Kids who can adapt to new situations are better at everything from learning vocabulary to making friends to succeeding in the workplace. Being able to manage your emotional responce to change is part of being a grownup. Knowing when to accept change and when to insist that you have an impact creates a fulfilling life. Last, seeing the good that can come from a transition is how you grab an opportunity.
The ability to adapt is one of the things that made humans special since we first started using that opposable thumb. Encourage your kids to learn it.