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Life is full of change. Big changes and little changes; positive, and yes, sometimes negative changes. A move, a divorce, the death of a family member or even a beloved pet—these things can deeply and profoundly affect our kids. Even smaller changes, such as starting a new school year or learning new concepts can cause them to feel stressed.
Think about it: our kids are learning and growing all the time, experiencing massive amounts of change and transition, every single day. Nearly every experience is something new and unfamiliar.
In just one day, your daughter might learn how to read a new word, learn a new mathematics concept, play with new friends at recess, have a new classroom arrangement, start a different afterschool club or activity, and then come home to try a new food at dinner. Their lives are a constant state of discovery and change.
Some kids have an easier time coping with uncertainty and new experiences than others. While both my girls are pretty easygoing most of the time, my oldest daughter definitely gets more stressed and worried when she doesn’t know what to expect. My youngest daughter, on the other hand, tends to be happy-go-lucky wherever we go. As long as her sister is nearby, she’s good.
But let’s face it–even as adults, most of us don’t love change. Yes, we might enjoy vacation or trying something new, but for the most part, we are creatures of habit. Starting a new job or say, buying a new car, can give us anxiety and uncertainty. Even positive change can be stressful. If we get stressed when changes come about, imagine how our kids must feel!
Oftentimes, kids have very little control over their daily schedule and what’s coming up next. They don’t have a Google Calendar to check or an app that gives them a little heads up when the next activity is coming around. In fact, young children can’t even tell time. Imagine the uncertainty they might feel in new situations! So, our kids are simply at our mercy as parents to convey the next bit of information to them before it occurs.
So, how can we help our kids cope with life’s challenges and changes (including the “small stuff” like bedtime and the end of recess) in a healthy manner?
1. Allow for Feelings
It can be really hard to see our kids get upset. As parents, we want our children to be happy all the time. And let’s face it, every parent could do without temper tantrums and meltdowns. When your kid is cranky and fussy, it can be frustrating, annoying and downright miserable for the whole family.
Instead of swooping in to rescue your child from their feelings, acknowledge their emotions and let them know it’s okay to cry it out a little. Saying, “I know you’re disappointed that we have to leave the park right now and it’s okay to be sad when good times end,” lets your kids know what they’re feeling is normal, validated and okay.
When your child is mad or upset, listen to them! Let them talk it out, even if it’s ridiculous playground drama or frustration about cleaning their room. Make eye contact. Stop what you’re doing, put down your phone, and really listen to their feelings. Talk about the highs and lows of what they’re going through. Help them write out their feelings or draw a picture of what is going on. Also provide them role playing activities to provide them with the necessary and correct words to help them describe how they are feeling.
Oftentimes things escalate because kids don’t feel heard or acknowledged. So then they’ll make a bigger-than-necessary fuss because they want you to notice they’re not happy with the situation. While we shouldn’t focus or dwell on their hurt feelings, we can simply try to acknowledge and listen.
3. Keep a Routine
If you’re facing a big transition—a move, a change of schools, a loss—keep the rest of your kids’ lives as consistent, predictable and routine as possible. When kids are coping with grownup problems like divorce or a new house, it’s easy to introduce too many other things into their lives as well, and just like anyone, they become overwhelmed and stressed.
Routine breeds consistency and safety, so keep bedtimes the same and meals normal. If they’re in dance class, Scouts or Little League, try to find similar activities in your new town. (Although, you may want to avoid packing their schedule with a stream of “new” experiences at first.) Try to give your kids time to play with their usual toys, set up their new room, read their favorite books, and do the things that bring them consistency and comfort.
4. Ensure Proper Sleep and Nutrition
Similarly, when kids are going through transitions, it’s critical they get enough sleep to keep them rested and avoid the “crankies.” As we all know, naps can work wonders for children’s moods and coping skills, and just like adults, plenty of sleep helps them feel more in control and able to deal with new experiences.
Be sure your kids get plenty to eat and keep it nutritious and sustaining by including protein, veggies and whole grains. If you’re in the middle of a move or a big day, plan ahead so you aren’t trying to tame hangry kids with candy bars and cookies. Full tummies keep kids happier and calm.
5. Build Trust
Our kids trust us and with their trust comes responsibility. This means when we say it’s time to go or we have set a time for an activity, they trust us to stick to it. When you go back on things or let it slide, it not only teaches our kids “a tantrum will get me what I want” but it also teaches them “Mom doesn’t really mean what she says.”
Kids should be able to trust you really mean it when you say they have ten more minutes to play or that if we go home now they can help pick out what veggie they want for dinner. As parents, we have to keep our kids trust and stay true to our word, even if it’s not what they want to hear.
6. Offer Autonomy and Choices
As I said before, kids are really at our mercy when it comes to scheduling and the structure of their day. One of the best ways to help kids cope with this lack of control and autonomy is to give them the ability and ownership to make smaller decisions.
If you’re moving to a new home, let your child help pick out the new color for their bedroom. If they have to leave the party, let them choose if you’re going to make macaroni and cheese or pizza for dinner. If it’s bedtime, let them choose which bedtime stories they want to read. The little options allow kids to feel they have control over some element of the decision in their lives and with that control comes peace.
7. Ask for Help
Kids will definitely rise to the occasion! In fact, I’m always a little amazed at how quickly and enthusiastically my kids get behind a concept when they have a chance to help with the situation.
Ask your kids to help you pack for a move, prepare for a new experience, or get ready for a vacation. Have them help you wrap the gift for the party or help you pick up when it’s time to go. Give them a challenge—set a time and ask them to see how quickly they can get ready to go in the morning or how fast they can set the table for dinner. Making kids feel necessary to the process and important goes a long way in boosting their confidence and outlook—and therefore, their ability to gracefully accept change.
8. Sing Songs, Be Silly and Stay Positive
Most moms are used to acting somewhere between goofy to downright dorky on occasion. Don’t be afraid to be silly when times are tough. After all, a mom sets the tone—and you may be surprised to feel your own spirits brighten when you add a little more fun to the mix.
Often kids read our moods like a book. We are their examples. I know if I’m crabby and frustrated my kids will pick up on it right away. I know it’s not possible to be a ray of sunshine all the time (who can?), but trying to look at things positively and excitedly will shift your mood as well as your kids.
So when it’s time to go, sing a “clean up” song. Make a rhyme or joke out of putting on your shoes, getting your coat, and getting to the car. Have a game lined up that makes the dreaded activity a little more exciting and fun.
Having fun works for all the little struggles as well. No one likes to clean up after a playdate, but what if you clean up to a little music? Or, try doing everything backwards or with one hand. Whatever silly things you can come up with or random songs you can sing about the activity will make it much better for everyone.
9. Let Them Know When You’re Close
It’s extremely important to help kids prepare for an upcoming transition. This means becoming the “ten more minutes” mom. Remind them you’ll be heading out in ten minutes, then five, then three. It may feel odd to you, but to someone who doesn’t feel secure with time, it gives them an opportunity to mentally prepare for the next activity.
We do this at bedtime and it gets great results. Letting the girls know there’s a few more minutes actually makes them feel like they have time to fit in a round of a game or a little more play. Then consistently following up with the said amount of time gives them something they can rely and depend on. Just like you have a reminder on your calendar, kids need those little reminders throughout the day.
10. Welcome Your Kids to New Situations
When there’s an upcoming event causing anxiety (even the little stuff like bedtime, bath time, dinner, or a new school day), help your kids feel as welcome and invited into the situation as possible.
Adding some enthusiasm and acting as though coming downstairs to dinner is a treat can change their whole mentality. Would you rather hear, “Get in here! Dinner’s ready!” or, “Come sit in this comfy chair and enjoy this yummy dinner! Look how delicious this lasagna looks and smells. You’re going to love it!” Kids will be much more excited about any given situation when you invite them to join you to take part in this next “exciting” activity.
11. Don’t Make Your Anxiety Theirs
Life’s changes cause all of us stress and anxiety, especially when it’s a big change like divorce, a death, a move or another hard situation. While kids need to know we’re human and that we have emotions (and that it’s okay to express sadness, frustration and hurt), we have to be careful not to project all of our emotions and anxiety on to our kids in a new situation.
Be calm, grateful and reflective about a big change. Approach it with optimism and as though it’s a new adventure or experience. Even loss can become an opportunity to reflect and move into a new spot in your life emotionally. You might be extremely sad or worried, but help ease the transition for everyone involved by focusing on the positive and the many things you have to be grateful for. Reflect on happy memories and anticipate memories to come in the future.
Remember, our kids often reflect our attitudes our ability to cope with transition. To make transition and change easier, be open to and aware of everyone’s feelings, and be sure your kids are heard when they’re upset. Stick to routines and healthy habits, and set an example for your kids by being as positive and consistent as possible throughout times of tough change.
Yes, it can be hard. When our family has experienced life altering changes and I’ve felt negative and run-down, I’ve prayed for the strength to accept change and move forward with each new challenge, and the grace to teach my daughters to do the same.
Share Your Tips: How do you help your kids deal with change?