Teaching Children To Cope With Change
We know that young children feel safe and secure when they have a steady routine. Knowing what comes next is how they measure time. They feel more self-assured when they are with people they know and trust in a familiar environment. The same is true for older children and adults. Rare is the adult who thrives from the knowledge that change is coming. Even more unusual are those adults who institute change. It is so unusual that we have come up with names for them - “change agents.” But then life changes and we look at each other and say, “Change is hard” as we commiserate. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could raise children who cope with change better than we do?
In the course of my career, I have watched many parents try to protect their children from change. I’ve seen parents afraid to tell their children a beloved pet died so they make up an elaborate story of where the dog or cat went. I’ve had parents who are miserable in their marriage tell me that they stay together for the children. Surely, young children perceive the tension and unhappiness in the household. People resist moving when it makes logical sense. Most commonly, I’ve watched parents struggle to make sure nothing changes in the life of their preschooler when a new baby is born. It isn’t reality. Life changes. Births, deaths, job changes, family situations – they will happen throughout your child’s life. Parents need to carefully consider when staying with the routine is best or when they should use life’s twists and turns to teach their children an important life lesson.
Every situation is an opportunity to teach. We need to consciously guide them through change. Acknowledge that new situations will bring change and give your children permission to feel their emotions. Just as consistent routines are empowering, so is the validation of their feelings. Whatever emotions they are feeling – anxiety, sadness, trepidation – will pass. It is an important lesson that emotions pass. Observe your children carefully and give their feelings words. Say to them, “I see you are nervous” or “I see you are worried” and assure them it is fine to feel that way now while reassuring them that they won’t feel that way forever. They will settle into a new routine.
Speak to your children about what the change will likely mean in their lives. Talk to your children about the simple truth – things will be a little different. A new baby will need you. Tell your preschooler that there will be times when you have to care for the baby but you will still make sure to have special time together. You can take care of the baby together. Sometimes, we may do things differently but different can be fun too. When the beloved pet dies, acknowledge that death can be sad. Tell your child that is okay to be sad but the sadness will become less over time. Allow your child the ability to mourn and move forward. Separation and divorce bring the opportunity to teach about the importance of finding happiness and peace. Tell your children that they will always be loved and you are changing the family to try to make it happier.
Be a role model of courage. Children are very intuitive about the emotions of the adults around them. When we are afraid, they become afraid. Fear is a valid emotion. You are a positive role model when you acknowledge that you are a little scared too. You aren’t fooling them when you don’t acknowledge it. When you have honest conversations about being afraid but you powerfully forge ahead, you are a model of bravery. Watching the important adults in their lives commit acts of bravery is far more powerful than watching superheroes on television. They learn that bravery is real. While you may not have superhuman strength that allows you to lift buildings, you do face challenges calmly and with hope. They can learn to do the same from watching you.
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Cindy Terebush, Early Education Consultant & Speaker