Like it or not, change happens. A change can be a new baby in the family, moving to a new school or grade, or a new routine or activity. But change often includes loss. When something new comes into our lives, it can mean that something is left behind. A marital separation, new house, new school or other changes for children usually mean that the sameness of routines, familiarity of surroundings, and predictable interactions that they can count on are lost. Even positive changes can cause life disruptions that take an adjustment period.
We like routine or sameness in our lives because it lightens our mental load. We can go on “auto-pilot” for many of our decisions and save our mental energy for the situations that really need it. If we drive the same way to work each day, on the drive we can plan for our day or enjoy the radio, and do not need to spend our mental energy figuring out our route. As adults, we usually don’t want to expend effort on thinking 24/7. We need mental downtime to get ready for the next task ahead. Change challenges that for all of us.
Kids are not mature enough to have developed the cognitive and emotional skills to adapt to significant change and so they tend to cling to roles, routines, rituals and predictability even more. A child’s ability to cope with change (resilience) is partially determined by age, developmental level, natural temperament, abilities for self-regulation and self-control, level of emotionality, and context. But unlike what we thought before, resilience can also be taught. Helping kids adjust to changes is a way of promoting the development of skills needed to become flexible and resilient people who have the ability to negotiate a changing and challenging world.
What can parents to do to help their kids adjust and learn new skills for coping in all situations, i.e. become more resilient? Much depends on your child and the context of the situation, but these tips can help.
- Think about the timing. Kids need time to process upcoming changes but for very young kids, something that is too far in the future will seem abstract and confusing. Think about how long your kids need to ask questions and adjust to a new idea before they have to adjust to the change itself. And, if changes can be staggered, like letting kids adjust to a new house for a time before adjusting to a new school, it will usually go better. Use this good experience to build on feeling effective and capable for future unknowns.
- Give a sense of control. Most of the big things in a child’s life are decided by adults and usually this is for the best! But kids like to have control too, so giving them opportunities to make choices or have input helps. Letting them choose the shower curtain at Dad’s new house, or the color of their new bedroom gives them concrete details to focus on and may be a positive distraction. Teenagers may want to give input into the timing or other logistics of how things go.
- Keep things the same as much as possible, i.e. make life more predictable. Maintain bedtime routines, family rituals or other elements of your child’s schedule to the extent possible. If the family has dinner together at roughly the same time every night, try to maintain that ritual in the midst of the chaos surrounding a big change. These consistencies become touchstones for coping when everything else is shifting.
- Give them information. Children need to understand what is happening in their lives, and may ask lots of questions. Give simple, consistent answers, even when they ask the same questions repeatedly. This is often their way of processing new information or getting reassurance. The questions your child asks are a great way to understand how they are coping and what is concerning them. Stay patient with the questions so they will keep giving you clues to how they are thinking!
- Expect that some regression or behavioral outbursts may happen. Under stress, we often revert to ways of being that might not represent our best selves. Children are no different, so don’t be surprised if you see problems from an earlier developmental period resurface. Be patient and seek help if behavioral issues persist or become much worse than they were in the past.
- Accept and validate emotions. It can be unsettling to see your child sad, angry or anxious. Listen to your child and help them name their feelings. Assist them in seeing the positives in the new situation, but also let them have their feelings. This might mean you have to accept and validate your own emotions so that you can tolerate theirs. Find a listening ear for yourself if you need to so you can be that for your kids.
- Provide more 1:1 time with each child. Make a little extra time daily for younger children, or a special time during the week for an older child or adolescent. Cuddle and talk together, play, have fun, listen to them and just provide extra attention. While it may be hard to find extra minutes to spare during an unsettled time, positive time together will buffer a lot of the stress your child may be experiencing. Asking for help from friends and family may be necessary to be able to give your children the extra time they need during an adjustment period.
- Be a model for resiliency. I remember being stuck in an elevator with a friend’s child. This kiddo was the emotional sort, and I am a bit claustrophobic. As I contemplated what to do, I saw that the child was watching me closely for cues about the trouble we were in. Recognizing this was a great teachable moment, I took a deep breath and said, “Ok, we are stuck for now, but we are going to stay calm, call for help and find a fun way to wait while we are here.” We both had some anxiety, but we got through the situation, and both of us had an experience of successfully coping. Changes and transitions are a great time to teach your children how to handle difficulties and help them to develop the skills they need for a lifetime.
By Dr. Julie Linker, licensed clinical psychologist
Medical executive editor for mental health blog series: Bela Sood, MD