Change can be hard for anyone, but especially for kids because they thrive on stability and routine. It can be hard because change is a time of transition and anyone with kids knows that transition times are when all hell breaks loose. The problem is that change is inevitable. The good news is that there are simple ways to help kids cope with changes whether they are small or big life changes like moving to a new house, getting a new sibling, dealing with divorce, or going to a new school.
Why Change is so Difficult for Kids
Kids already have so little control of their lives to begin with. From toddler-aged to the teenage years, kids are constantly being told by the adults in their lives what to do and how to act. The world can be overwhelming, especially for younger kids who are still developing cognitively and behaviorally. Obviously, as kids get older they have a little more control over their lives but they are still not in total control of everything going on in their lives, so it is still easy to be completely overwhelmed by major changes that come their way.
Kids of all ages do everything from resisting to avoiding to having a total meltdown because it is so hard to cope with changes. They react in these ways because they are overwhelmed by the emotions they are feeling. Sometimes these reactions can be due to fear – the fear of not knowing what is going to happen or even the fear of bad things happening because things are changing.
READ MORE: 6 Tips for Surviving Divorce
Even at 15 or 16 years old it is not easy to process and deal with something like your parents getting divorced or moving across the country where you won’t know anyone and where you will be living in a new house and going to a new school. Other times, these reactions happen because kids do not have the tools to cope with changes yet.
Kids already have a hard time with change, but kids who have ADHD, anxiety disorders, autism, developmental delays, or behavioral challenges have so much more to overcome in terms of learning how to cope with changes. They already have difficulty navigating the changes in their daily life and transitioning from one thing to another, so layering a life-altering change on top of that makes things even more difficult.
The fact of the matter is that change is hard for everyone. It can take years for adults to cope with changes that happen in their lives. Learning how to cope with changes comes with experience, maturity, and being shown how to process all the things that change makes you feel.
Kids also take cues from the adults around them. How the adults in a situation respond can greatly affect how the kids in that situation respond as well. It is okay to feel your feelings about the changes happening. It is even okay to have a hard time with them. You can even tell your kids you are having a hard time. That just shows them it is normal to need time to adjust to a change. Be careful not to transfer those fears and anxieties to your kids though.
6 Ways to Help Kids Cope with Changes
Regardless of age, ability, and the type of change coming, there are simple ways to help kids cope with changes big and small. With some guidance on your part and a little practice, employing these 6 ways to help cope with changes will help teach your kids long-term strategies for dealing with the changes that come with life. You will likely find that they also help you as the adult in the situation cope with whatever change is happening.
Time to Prepare
One of the simplest yet most effective ways to help your kids cope with changes that are coming is to tell them about the change well before it is going to happen There are times when this is not possible and you do not have much of a heads up about something changing but whenever possible, talk to your kids about an upcoming change ahead of time. This gives them time to process and prepare for the change. It also gives you time to talk to them about the unknowns – all the things they might start to have questions about or start wondering about because the situation is going to be new and they are not familiar with it.
If you and your spouse have decided to get a divorce, tell your children before one parent is getting ready to move out so that they can process the situation. Explain where everyone is going to live and when they will see each parent. The parent who is moving out can show them where they are going to live and drive around the new neighborhood to point out cool things you can do together or places you can go like a park or an ice cream shop.
This will start to help them cope with changes that are coming (and there will be a lot of them) as a result of the divorce by simply realizing that a lot of things will be different. They also won’t be left wondering where mom or dad will be and when they will get to see them. This is a big help in starting to process this sort of major change.
When they are needing to cope with changes like a move or a new school, familiarize them with as much as you can before the move. If you are moving nearby, show them the new house and their new school. If it is farther away and a trip ahead of time is not possible, show them pictures of the new house and the town or area where you will be living.
Before starting at a new school, arrange for them to have a chance to walk around inside the school and meet their new teacher. By eliminating a lot of the unknowns that may seem scary and stressful, they will be much more able to cope with the changes of the move.
If they will be welcoming a new brother or sister, talk about what they can expect when the baby comes and the ways they can help when the baby comes home. Talk about what it is like being a big brother or sister. Continuing to visit these sorts of discussions throughout the pregnancy or adoption process will help give your kids time to think about what it will be like and get used to the change or having a new sibling.
Let Them Feel Their Feelings
No matter what their feelings are, it is important to let your kids feel their feelings. Sometimes it is hard to watch your child feel angry, sad, or upset in any way but in order to cope with changes that happen, it is important for them to feel whatever way those changes make them feel. Burying or ignoring those feelings just makes the change even harder.
Acknowledging their own feelings and having you acknowledge them helps both of you to know how they are reacting to the change. It also allows you to be understanding and empathetic. Kids need validation, so if your child is sad about your divorce or about leaving their friends because your family is moving to another city, tell them you understand that they are sad. Talk about how it is totally normal to feel sad when things change. Tell them you know they will miss having their family in one house or seeing their friends at school every day. Most importantly, let them know that it is okay to feel whatever way they are feeling.
This mechanism can help cope with changes or transitions as small as having to leave the playground because it is time to go home and make dinner or pick up their sibling from school. It might not stop them from crying or making a meltdown but it can help them feel validated and recover faster from the disappointment.
Listen and Connect
This is very much linked to the previous idea of letting kids feel their feelings in order to cope with changes. First, listen to your kids. Just be there for them. Listen to what they say and how they feel. Let them know that they can come to you with questions or just to talk and you will be there to listen. Remember, that listening does not necessarily mean offering advice. A lot of the time, listening means just that. Listen to them. Validate their feelings by saying you understand and that it is okay to feel the way they are feeling. If they ask for help or advice, then offer it.
It is important to let your kids know that no matter what changes, you are always going to be there for them. Give them your undivided attention for at least 10 minutes every day. You can devote a little time at some point in the day that makes sense. It could even be part of your family dinner or bedtime routine. No electronics or screens. Just you and them. Ask them about their day, how they are feeling, what their favorite show is on television right now, or anything else really. Spend some time connecting with them.
Kids, especially younger kids, sometimes have a meltdown because they do not feel like they are being heard. By doing both of these things – listening to and spending time connecting with them – you are helping them cope with changes by supporting them and making sure they know they are being heard.
Routine, Routine, Routine
One of the simplest ways to help kids cope with changes is to stick with as many of your regular routines as possible. This helps to provide the stability that makes kids feel safe and calm. This is because while everything else around them may be changing (in instances of a move or a divorce for example) they will know that they have some constant in their lives. This helps cope with changes because it gives them times in the day when things are familiar despite the changes taking place and they can see that despite the change, they still have some of their “old life” no matter what.
The two most important routines to keep in place as much as possible while you cope with changes are meals and bedtime. These are two things that help kids feel like their needs are being met and in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, those two needs – food and sleep – are at the very base of the pyramid. Nothing else can be regulated when the base needs are not met.
So while everything else might seem stressful, continuing to follow the same bedtime routine or having a meal as a family with whoever is still in your household gives kids some time in the day when they know what to expect and won’t be overwhelming or stressful. Their basic needs, which are very important despite being described as “basic”, are being met and they are being met in a way they know and can expect.
Give Choices When Possible
Another simple way you can help your kids cope with changes going on in their lives is to give them choices whenever possible. Since kids have so little control over their lives, it is important to give them control when it is possible and appropriate, especially in times of change. Let them choose what color to paint their new bedroom or pick out new bedding. Ask what meal they would like to eat as their first meal in the new house. Let them pick out their outfit for the first day of school.
You can even do this for smaller decisions. If it is time to leave the park, ask what they want to have for a snack when you get home or let them pick the music for the car ride home.
Small choices, even if you only give them a few options to choose from, allow kids to feel like they have control over some part of their lives. Feeling like they have control allows them to feel a sense of autonomy, which leads to a calmer, happier child.
Offer Ways to Ease Transitions
Sometimes an easy way to help kids cope with changes is to offer ways to ease times of transition. For instance, keep thinking putty or a fidget spinner in the car that they can fidget with when you are driving them over to the other parent’s house. This is particularly good for older kids because it offers something for the transition but does not make them feel like little kids like a silly song or a stuffed animal might.
Teach both older and younger kids grounding activities like breathing techniques to help them calm themselves at bedtime or anytime they are feeling stressed. Sometimes all it takes is a few deep breaths to bring your mind out of anxious thoughts and back to a calm place. Anyone from a toddler to an adult can learn a simple breathing exercise because all it involves is breathing in and out a few times and orienting yourself to your surroundings. All it takes is some guided practice from you and before you know it, they will be able to do it on their own.
For younger kids, make sure a favorite toy is around to help them feel calm and secure. For small changes or transitions, sing a silly song like a clean-up song when it is time to put toys away.
All of these ideas do the same thing. They offer a constant that kids will learn to expect when the change or transition occurs and it provides something positive to associate with and help cope with changes that are going on.
Teaching kids how to cope with changes is such a healthy lesson. It will still take some time to come to terms with major life changes like a divorce or a big move but it makes things much easier on both you and your kids. It teaches them lifelong strategies to cope with changes that are going to continue to happen during their lives, which will hopefully make change less of a scary thing for them. Some changes will always be difficult to navigate but having the appropriate tools to cope with changes makes such a huge difference.
WANT TO READ MORE?
Check out Why I Stopped Being The “Perfect” Mom for more advice, tips, and tricks.
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