“Change” is a powerful word. One that invokes countless reactions depending on who you ask.
Change is also unavoidable. Sometimes it’s within our control, but most often it’s not. Certain changes such as the loss of a loved one, serious illness of a parent, and divorce can be painful, and some of the hardest changes to adjust to. Perhaps any unforeseen event can be anxiety-provoking, however, unexpected events that occur in childhood can be particularly difficult to manage.
I met Quinn when she was nine years old. Her parents were concerned about how the news about their pending separation was affecting her. They were thoughtful parents who wanted to provide as much support as possible for their two school-aged kids. They worried more about their youngest, Quinn, as she was already showing signs of anxiety and withdrawal. Parents reported that Quinn began nail-biting, got up multiple times during the night, and refused to participate in an activity that she typically loved—drawing. When I asked Quinn about how she was coping, she shared that the scariest part of her parents impending separation was the thought of changing schools. The idea terrified her. Talking about it was nearly impossible. With tears in her eyes, she recalled how devastated her best friend Sofie was when she had to switch schools when her own parents’ got divorced last year. I listened closely, but the few words I had for Quinn were quickly interrupted with tears. In that moment, mere words from a therapist seemed insufficient.
We all have experienced unexpected events that have had a lasting emotional impact. Whether it be anticipated or unforeseen, change can be tricky for adults, and even more challenging for children.
Think of the toddler stage. For some toddlers, simply announcing that it is time to end a play date, even with fair warning, can trigger a colossal meltdown! At this age, children are impulsive and have minimal control over their emotions. Because verbal articulation is still developing, toddlers often display their frustrations by screaming, kicking and even hitting. Aware parents will take a deep breath and calmly but immediately pick them up and remove them from the scene. I have a two-year-old and yes, I’ve been there.
For the preschool and school-aged child, helping them manage change may look a little differently depending on the child and the age. They may be better able to express their thoughts and feelings about the change. No matter the manifestation, unanticipated events can trigger a longing for stability and safety.
After a loss or any significant challenge to our perception of safety, our brains become temporarily disorganized, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and out of control. The good news, revealed through neuroscientific research, is that the brain can systematically regain a sense of balance. In fact, our entire nervous system has the capacity to grow even stronger from negative experiences, generally becoming more adaptive to a wide range of life circumstances.
I am pleased to report that Quinn is now a happy and healthy 11-year-old. Predictably, the divorce was trying for the entire family, but, Quinn is drawing again and has been able to share nuggets of wisdom to her friends who are undergoing a similar experience. Psychological researchers identify this process of successfully adapting to adverse or stressful social situations as exactly what helps us to develop resilience. And to achieve competence, children need to actively build on lessons learned from a challenging situation.
So, how do you help kids cope with change?
1. Allow time to grieve
Grief is a natural response to loss. As adults, we do not always grieve well. Some of us jump into the next task, project, or relationship to cope. It is important to teach children that expressions of sadness, loneliness, and frustration is expected. Children deal with change in varied ways and may not recognize nor understand their own feelings. For younger children, the underdeveloped emotional brain hinders the ability to understand what may be wrong. In such situations, parents with more developed emotional intelligence can assist by sharing their own feelings about the change: “You know, mommy and daddy are feeling sad about how fast things seem to be moving lately. Are you feeling sad, also?” Whether it be changes in the family structure, changing schools, mom going back to work, or transitions from a preferred activity, supporting your children through smaller disappointments is critical in enabling them to cope with future ones.
2. Create safety
If I’ve learned anything in my clinical experience working with youth, it is this: Children can be frequently told they are safe, and may even know they are safe, but they do not necessary feel safe. As most parenting experts will attest, children need security, consistency and stability. At first glance, these principles may appear to be quite oxymoronic when associated with the storms of life. However, depending on the age, there are ways to provide children with security in transition. In an ideal world, a family remains stable and in one household throughout their kids’ childhoods. But if that does not occur, make a point to keep disruption at a minimum. Keeping some level of “sameness” is key. As parents, be sure to deliver a singular message to your child, even if you don’t agree with all the details. Safety by way of consistency means not wavering on core values, even out of convenience.
3. Get them involved
Did you know that children are hardwired to be helpful? Studies have shown that kids as young as two will come to the assistance of someone who’s dropped something or carrying multiple bags that appear to be heavy. Unfortunately, this quality of cooperation doesn’t always generalize to placing their toys in the toy box. Nevertheless, assigning responsibilities is helpful in creating structure and building self-reliance. Allow your child to pick the chore. Table setting, pet feeding, emptying the dishwasher, and other age-appropriate duties that your child enjoys is not only a helpful distraction but also teaches them important lessons about contribution and self-sufficiency.
4. Be patient and compassionate
During a transition, your child may regress or appear a little more clingy than usual. The more consistent and patient you are in your approach, the better your child will adjust. While the urge to shelter your child from pain will surface, focus on being present rather than protective. Play is an excellent way to decompress! Be sure to schedule enjoyable activities for the entire family. While Quinn had a relatively smooth transition following her parents’ divorce, some children will struggle. Learning to cope with an unwanted change can take weeks, months, even up to a year for some children to process their disappointment.
Be patient, it will happen! A little extra attention and compassion reveals that while change is inevitable, your love remains the same.