Change is inevitable. Even when change is positive, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy because it usually means some upheaval to our sense of structure and stability. Change is even more challenging for our little people because they haven’t yet built their resilience, which comes from previous adverse life experiences they deal with and learn to cope with. Our children also don’t have much control over their lives when significant changes occur like moving to a new house, divorce, or starting school. A sense of routine or predictability helps our children feel safe and secure because they know what to expect. Feeling out of control or confused can lead our children to become more overwhelmed because they feel unsafe, unsure, and they don’t understand what is happening or why, which can feed into or exacerbate their distress. Looking at it this way, you can see why it is difficult for some kids to cope with change.
Depending on your child’s age or personality, you may see a range of behaviors in response to changes. They may have tantrums, regression, anger, detachment, defiance. Or they can exhibit other non-behavioral signals like bedwetting, psychosomatic complaints (sore tummy, headaches), or even changes to academic engagement and performance. Below are some strategies to help your child cope with change of all shapes and sizes.
Strategies to Help Your Child Cope with Change
1. Acknowledge the big emotions.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings to help give them context and understand their emotional response to change. When we help our kids understand their internal world (feelings), they feel more in control and confident in their capacity to cope as they better understand what is happening to them and why. It sounds fancy, but it’s so simple, name the emotion you see your child experiencing as a result of change, or normalize beforehand what big feelings might come up.
For example, you can say, “I can see you are so sad that we have to leave the park. You weren’t ready to head home, and it’s making you feel upset.” Or, “You’re starting school next week, which is a big change. When things change, it’s totally normal to have lots of big feelings or even different feelings all at once. You might be excited, worried, scared, and that’s okay!”
2. Listen . . . and I mean really listen.
Make some time when you are not distracted by cooking dinner or have another task to complete and sit down to talk to them about change and then listen to what they have to say. Listening doesn’t involve coming up with solutions or counteracting their thoughts/ideas with truth or reality . . . it means actually hearing what is concerning your child (real or not). Make sure you sit somewhere quiet, get down to the same level as them, and make eye contact. Show you are listening by reflecting what you hear (I hear you are worried; it sounds like that made you really mad) and using minimal encouragers (hmmm, aha, I see).
3. Give them warnings!
Children can often require many warnings (multiple times and in advance where possible) before transitioning them to a new activity. This can be a small transition like going from lunchtime back to classroom activities, right through to large transitions like moving hours. Your child’s age and developmental level will determine how far in advance you need to warn them and how you might describe the change.
Younger children don’t need as much warning as they won’t have a lot of context for what the change means for them or how it might impact them. You also won’t need to provide as much detail as you would for an older child who needs more information to give them context and to help them understand what to expect. Prepare them by letting them know what to expect or how their change might impact their normal daily life, but don’t over-explain it.
4. Stick to routines.
Be consistent and stick to routines where possible. If you can retain some old routines, your child will still experience a sense of security. For example, if you are divorcing or your living arrangements are changing, you might still keep your nighttime routine of dinner, bath, brush teeth, read a story.
5. Add structure.
Or, if you don’t have a routine, you can increase their sense of stability by adding structure to their day, so they know when to expect transitions and feel safe. If you know your child struggles with meeting new people or starting a new activity, you might start a countdown to help them know when to expect the change. Or you could set a timer or put in place a particular set of actions in the lead up to change. For example, you might have a specific toy or game that your child plays with, which helps them feel happy and calm. You might bring that toy/game out when you give them a warning that it’s time to experience change. It could be a favorite teddy, some bubbles to blow, a sensory toy that they can pull, squish, or squeeze.
6. Prepare them for change.
Reading a book or finding another resource like a TV show (particular episode) that explores a similar change to what your child will experience in the future can help. It can start a conversation or gently introduce a topic or explore the characters’ feelings. All of this goes a long way to normalizing the overwhelm associated with change.
7. Fill your child’s cup!
Everyone has needs that have to be met each day, and when we have full cups, we are more resilient. People have needs like thirst, hunger, sleep, relationships (emotional connection), and safety. If we meet our needs, it reduces our stress levels. So, if you know you have an upcoming change, try to ensure your child’s cup is filled every day so that they feel less overwhelmed and better able to cope.
8. Help your child regulate if they show distress associated with change.
Show them how to do calm belly breathing, run on the spot, or do star jumps. Essentially you want to help them expel excess energy associated with stress and also soothe them.
9. Walk the walk.
Model to your child how you deal with change. You don’t want to overwhelm your child or burden them with your own concerns about a change, but you can absolutely model and demonstrate how to cope with change. For example, “I’m a bit nervous about starting my new job, and it’s okay to be nervous. So, what I’m going to do to try and help myself feel better is taking some deep breaths and also hugging you, if that’s okay? Hugs with you always make me feel happy.”
10. Increase your child’s sense of autonomy.
Often the big feelings associated with change result from feeling powerless and out of control. So, let them have a say in their daily lives, not necessarily big decisions, but let them have a say in what clothes they might wear that day, what story you will read before bed, and what cereal they are choosing to eat.
11. Identify their triggers.
Figure out if your child has any triggers which particularly overwhelm them. It might be a change to routine, or it could be new sensory stimuli (a new environment, etc.) that they particularly struggle with. So, see if you can figure out what makes your child feel distressed. Don’t do it so you can take away or necessarily remove the trigger (that’s not always possible, and it doesn’t give your child the chance to learn how to cope), but more so you can put other protective mechanisms around them, like filling their cup before you know a triggering change will occur, or pre-warning them a change will occur, putting structure around the situation, etc.
12. Get family on the same page.
Get family, friends, and other key caregivers all on the same page for how to support your child, their routines, how they manage and respond to their emotions, and how they will explain the change. Consistency is key!
13. Give them a chance to feel confident in their own ability to cope.
It’s hard not to rush in and try to take away or reduce their big feelings, but we aren’t giving our children the chance to learn to cope or develop their resiliency. Sit with them and normalize their feelings. Help them develop self-regulatory strategies (like I mentioned in the above tip), and be present with them. Sometimes just acknowledging a feeling and being there for your child is enough!
14. Seek professional help if they are not coping.
Yes, change is tough, and yes, we know that it might bring up big feelings. However, if your child continues to struggle, or you see changes to their usual personality, sleep patterns, eating patterns, or they seem markedly different than their “normal” selves, don’t hesitate to seek professional supports for your child.
15. Attend to your own self-care.
Children pick up on your emotions, so make sure that you also manage your own wellbeing during a period of change (as the change is likely to impact everyone in your family). Our kids need us to be healthy in every way so that we can support them, so make sure you are eating right, exercising, and taking time to address your own wellbeing.