Things change. With the way the world constantly changes around us, things can feel overwhelming as an adult, let alone to children who may be experiencing a big change for the first time. While many kids encounter small changes during the first few years of their lives, big changes are unavoidable. From the first time kids are away from their parents, to their first day of school, sooner or later they will experience their first big change.
Big changes can feel scary and tough no matter what age they occur. With younger children, parents may notice changes in their behaviour, such as seeming unsettled, easily upset, or naughty. Some may seem to revert back to behaviours they had moved on from, which can leave parents feeling frustrated and at a loss for what to do. While change is never easy, knowing how to help children learn to cope with changes big or small can be a hugely valuable skill.
Whether your child is facing a big milestone like moving to a new school, or an unexpected change arises like a family illness, change can be challenging for children who haven’t yet developed the skills to cope with them. With your help and support, along with a little experience, you can aid children through changes big or small.
Why do some children cope better than others with change?
Each child reacts differently to change. Some may show excitement at the thought of moving houses, focusing on the positives around getting their own room or a new space of their own, whilst others may feel more overwhelmed, or think of the negatives first – moving away from friends, leaving behind special places, or focusing on the unknown that is to come.
Even if your child initially seems excited about a big change, it can be worth keeping a close eye on them. Once that initial excitement has faded and the true scope begins dawning on them, they may begin to struggle, find it difficult to articulate how they are feeling, or start blaming the adults around them for the upcoming change. For some children, this may be the first time they realise just how much power adult choices can have on them and the impact it can have on their lives, which can seem like a big revelation.
Helping children learn to navigate, recognise and put names to their emotions – whether positive or negative – can help set them up to feel more comfortable with themselves and more confident expressing themselves.
Six ways to help children manage big and small changes
Communicate clearly – big changes can seem even more intimidating when heard second-hand or not explained fully. While you don’t have to discuss every decision you are making with your children, it’s important that they feel part of the conversation when a change may affect them in a significant way.
If you need to talk things through and sort out the details ahead of time in private, try to make sure that the children won’t be able to overhear your discussions going on around them. Partially overhearing about big changes can be worrying or upsetting, as they may not fully understand what is going on or may pick up on any tension or uncertainty whilst decisions are being made.
Give them space – it can take a little while for things to fully sink in. Try to give them space if they are having trouble expressing themselves. While it can be tempting to push to try to get them to open up, take a step back and let them have the space to come to you. Let them know that you are there to listen or talk whenever they are ready. Once they do feel comfortable coming to you with their thoughts, feelings, fears or concerns, do your best not to interrupt or dismiss what is being said. Listen to their concerns, talk through them, and try to see where these worries can be worked around or through.
Stay calm and consistent – this can be easier said than done, especially if you are worried about any big changes too. If your child can see you remaining calm and consistent despite any upheaval, it can reinforce the idea that it is possible to come with big changes and they may feel like they don’t need to worry quite as much.
Make sure you are staying consistent with boundaries and rules where possible. While it can be tempting to loosen the rules, keeping these boundaries in place can provide a reassuring, stable routine. It can also help emphasise that even when some things change, not everything will.
As adults, we are better able to deal with and anticipate what change may be like before it happens, as we have previous experiences we can call on. For many younger children, they don’t have the language, experience, or understanding to fall back on. By remaining calm, consistent, and supportive, we can help them as they begin developing their own ability to manage change and challenging situations.
Give them a sense of control – children may not be able to have control over big changes or decisions like starting school or moving house, but by giving them control of the little things, it can help them to feel less overwhelmed. Remind them that they have control over their emotions, choices, and behaviours. Let them make their own decisions over smaller things like what clothes they want to wear or how they want their hair done.
If they are going to school for the first time or changing schools, giving them the choice to pick out their own stationery or bag can help, or let them help pack their lunch. If you are moving, consider letting them decorate their own space or have an input into how it will look. Be creative, and find what fits for your situation. By letting them feel as though they have some control over the smaller things, this can help them to feel energised, empowered, and included. Remind them that although sometimes big changes can happen in our lives that we can’t control, we can still control how we react to and deal with what is happening.
Be supportive – a little extra attention can go a long way towards helping a child feel less stressed or upset due to change. Set aside some time each day or week to talk through how things are going, give them your undivided attention, and let them pick an activity for you to do together. Playing is an important part of childhood development. By giving them the control to choose what you do together, and dedicating some time for you to do this without distractions, it helps to show them that the important aspects of their lives – your love, care, and support – aren’t changing. These will remain constant, no matter what else may be happening.
Try using visual tools – some children (particularly those on the autistic spectrum) can find unexpected changes to their routines hard to cope with. Using visual tools may be a helpful way to help get across what changes are happening whilst helping them to get a better picture of how the changes will impact their routine. The National Autistic Society has some great information, tips, and links for finding and personalising resources.