Change is, as they say, the only constant. And yet many kids aren’t that keen on change, whether that’s moving from one activity to the next, or adapting to a new teacher and form, or coping with bigger changes such as a new home or school, the arrival of a new sibling, or significant changes to the family set-up.
The good news is that there’s lots we can do to help our children (even the ones who prefer everything to stay the same!) develop a level of flexibility and a more positive attitude to changes in their life so they are able to see the opportunities ahead and believe they can find their way forward.
Where shall we start?
Well, let’s first recognise that, as adults, we’ve had lots of opportunities to deal with all sorts of changes over the years. We still may not enjoy them all, but we have multiple examples in our memory bank where we’ve managed just fine. We’ve strengthened our adapting-to-change muscles over and over again.
Not only that, we have a mature Pre-Frontal Cortex – the bit of the brain that does all those clever thinking ahead, weighing up options and keeping our emotions a little more manageable. Put together, we’re three steps ahead of our kids!
Keep reminding yourself that most kids naturally kick up a bit of a fuss when things change. It’s developmentally normal. They’re much less capable than we are of coping with change, due to immaturity and lack of practice. They’re not trying to make your life harder, even though this is usually exactly what it does.
My child is HAVING a problem, not BEING a problem.
Temperament also plays a part in how we respond to new and unfamiliar set-ups and situations. Remember, temperament is not fixed. It’s a guide to what you’re more likely to do, feel or think in certain situations. It’s not what you will always do or feel or think.
According to the traits used by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka in “Raising your spirited child” some kids are particularly low on the adaptability scale. You may have noticed that your child struggles with transitions a little more than their peers or siblings – some of whom find change exciting! Low-adaptive children will get there, but it will take time.
Whenever possible, give low-adaptive children that little bit of extra time to stop, regroup, change focus, and get started again. A few minutes upfront can often save many more minutes later on, and each time they handle change that little bit better builds their competence and confidence at doing it next time.
“Rushing is the enemy of love.” Steven Biddulph
There is another trait which is referred to as ‘rejectivity’ or ‘reactivity’. According to Dr. Jerome Kagan, an American psychologist who specialised in temperament, this probably affects about 15% of children who have a strong physical reaction to new situations. Their pupils dilate, their pulse rate escalates and their vocal chords tense when things around them change. No wonder they want the same cereal every morning and the same book every evening!
We can’t push our high-rejective kids forwards any more than we can rush our low-adaptive kids. Pushing them into new activities or situations sometimes seems to ‘work’ in the moment, but the children are so pumped with adrenalin that they’re not learning about coping with new things.
Break any new activity or challenge into small steps and allow your high-rejective child to take one step at a time. Allowing children to watch before getting involved feels really slow to us, but it really helps them!
What else helps kids deal with a new set of pyjamas, or a different brand of toothpaste, or a new bedroom or friendship group, let alone coping with a new school, sibling, or even country?
Would you be surprised to hear that the ability to cope with change is that perfect mix of the belief in your ability to try, a nice dose of empathy and some practical support?!
Every child has a deep innate desire to feel safe and secure which inevitably leads to uncomfortable feelings when they’re in unknown territory. The best way to make our children feel safe – that’s emotionally safe as well as physically safe – is by giving them lots of positive attention. And, yes, you’re right …. They need a lot more than we realise!
We can get a bit caught up about giving kids attention. We worry it will make them self-centred or arrogant. But it depends on the type of attention and the focus of our attention! Keep your praise for your child grounded in reality by describing what they have done and why it matters, rather than telling them how amazing they are. Spend more time praising your child for trying hard and being willing to try new things, thinking about what may work, being flexible, patient or staying a little bit calmer when they’re not comfortable.
And what about empathy? Sometimes we worry as much about giving empathy as we do about giving praise! Our concern comes from getting muddled about empathy and sympathy. These things are not the same - empathy is about showing understanding for how someone feels. Feeling understood can make you feel a whole lot braver. Sympathy has a pitying element which has the opposite effect!
Brené Brown explains this difference brilliantly in this video!
When children are worried or concerned about what’s ahead of them, and uncomfortable about how things are, we offer them more support when we accept and recognise how they feel, rather than insist it will all be fine. Effectively insisting it’s all OK, or going to be great, tells our children that we think they’re wrong to be worried. Now they’re worried, and feeling wrong about being worried, which is double-trouble! We can show understanding without confirming there’s a problem.
Finally, what about the practice at adapting to change?
Well, that’s also going to take time. It doesn’t work to rush it by pushing unexpected changes onto a reluctant child! But it does work to watch out that we don’t leap into every moment when our child is unsure and try to sort things out for them. It’s so tempting! Every little moment we allow our kids to feel unsure about what’s going on and what they can do, with us by their side as a non-anxious presence, builds those adapting-to-change muscles.
Your children will find themselves in unfamiliar situations and periods of change, just as you once did. A parent’s job is not to clear away the obstacles and smooth all the changes, rather it is to instil in our child the confidence and resilience required to move through and learn from all those little moments when they don’t feel so sure of themselves.