A characteristic that has been crucial to our survival and development as humans is our ability to adapt to change. How well we adapt to change as individuals plays a huge part in our competency and resilience. And hence, helping our children develop the skill of adapting to change is an incredible gift that we can give them that will make a significant difference to their quality of life and happiness.

When helping children cope with change, it helps to remember that children are constantly grappling with new information. The more we can incorporate the places they’re familiar with, the items they love, the rituals they’re used to, and the people they know, the more secure and in control of their world they will feel. And hence the less likely they are to become overwhelmed. Let’s dive into these ideas a bit further.

Children thrive on rhythm and routine

Children generally enjoy spending time doing that which they’ve already mastered. And at the same time children are inherently driven to keep learning and exploring new territory, and adapting to change. Yet they like to explore from a safe and secure place, which they mostly achieve when they feel looked after by someone who they know is intently focused on their wellbeing. This is why it’s very important to be a ‘bridge’ to help your child build the connection and trust with a new person or environment.

Your child takes their cues from you about who is safe and who isn’t

So rather than expecting your child to do all the work of forming new bonds on their own, be right in there with them (if needed) helping the flow of communication, helping your child share their thoughts and feelings, helping the other person get to know your child.
Young children need to be with attachment figures during this someone who is making it clear that they want to truly bond.  It’s important that your child can feel confident about accessing their needs, they want to feel cared for by those they have discovered will truly tune in to them, cares about them and will patiently help them adapt to their newer environment or activities.

Independence grows from the strong foundation of a child’s dependent needs being met

This is one of the most common misconceptions among parents. They believe that giving their children too much connection time will result in the child becoming overly needy or even helpless. In reality, the opposite is true. A child’s connection needs being met is what allows them to feel secure enough to develop healthy independence. When the child’s attachment needs are left unmet it results in the child either disconnecting in an unhealthy way e.g. they won’t let the parent in and they become very walled off, or it will result in over dependancy as the child or teenager is still attempting to get their attachment needs met.

At times of change a child will attempt to draw all that they need from the person and people who love and care for them the most.  Accepting that a child’s needs being higher than usual, including being more emotionally vulnerable and trusting that meeting their extra needs for connection, closeness, warmth, encouragement and listening is mostly what’s needed.

A child’s whole world is ‘change’

It’s worth keeping in mind that even at the best of times, when there aren’t major changes to deal with, children are encountering words, items, ideas, places, and people that they’re unfamiliar with. Things that we don’t think twice about, they’re having to learn and come to terms with. This in itself takes a lot of energy and can at times be frustrating and overwhelming. It’s no wonder they need more sleep than us!

Some typical changes that many children experience: 

The birth of a new sibling and indeed children sense change even from the time that their mother becomes pregnant generally.  Then there’s the old adage that a person either moves house, renovates or both during pregnancy. I can put my hand up to both, we moved house each time that I was pregnant! And of course, moving house at any time can be a huge change for a child to adapt to. Change always involves the letting go of how things have been to one extent or another.

The really big life changes

Illness brings change, mostly temporarily thankfully, but still big changes to the routine and often to the mood of parent, child or both! Other common changes that many, if not most families, go through are; when a parent returns to work, weaning from night feeds or from breastfeeding, increased conflict amongst parents, a new caregiver or early childhood situation, starting or changing schools, puberty, the list goes on.
Then there’s the really big life changes like parents separating, serious illness, emigration, accidents or a death in the family. There will always be more changes ahead, change is sometimes unexpected, sometimes exciting, and sometimes a relief.  But change is nearly always challenging, destabilising and sometimes traumatic. Especially the really big changes that have a huge impact on the parent generally make it much harder for the parent to be warm, light-hearted, friendly and emotionally present and available.  And this has a huge impact on the child.

At times of change, many children can feel less secure and more stressed

And when a child feels insecure and stressed, anything and everything can be harder for them to handle.  Sadness about saying goodbye to mum or dad when taken to school or the sadness of ending a playdate can evoke deeper feelings of grief relating to the bigger changes afoot. I remember a friend telling me about his daughter being completely beside herself with grief and distress because when they went back to the library to get her card she’d left there earlier but the library was closed.  The same girl’s mother had died a couple of years earlier, little losses touched on big feelings of grief for her, and every cry was a part of her grieving process (when she felt supported).  Listening lovingly to all these feelings strengthens a child.

The stress of change can manifest in different ways for different children

Many children become extra clingy and seek out more hugs, more stories before bed and more attention in general. It’s also not unusual for children to regress at such times. The four year old who has long since potty trained might have a few accidents. The three year old whose been happily sleeping in their own bed wants to sleep with her parent/s. Big boy or girl voices disintegrate into high pitched whining. The seven year old pushes her friends when she gets angry.  It’s important for parents to know that your child’s development isn’t linear and regressions are very normal. Knowing this can save a whole lot of worry and stress!!

You can expect an increase in defiance or even aggression

It’s important to express limits that reflect that we can’t allow destructive behaviour, but it doesn’t help if we’re harsh or punitive. When we express limits or remind them of the tasks at hand, it’s our empathy and understanding of their big feelings which allows them to feel safe and secure.

The container of our holding is what ultimately helps them move through the difficult feelings that change brings.

jThe child who has smouldering feelings relating to anticipated or recent change is less likely to identify and express their feelings directly like “I’m struggling, can you help me?”.  They’re more likely to show those feelings in anti-social behaviour. It’s very important that we give them extra emotional warmth and support at these times rather than becoming overly focused on the their grumpy demeanour.

It can help to remember that children don’t want to make life more difficult for us. They simply can’t manage big feelings without our emotional support. It’s our loving support that in time teaches them how to care for themselves and others.

Change can make a child very grumpy

Parents can feel like they’re walking on eggshells refraining from giving requests or corrections to avoid meltdowns.  But in fact what often brings the child relief is when we stop trying to appease them and we control our urge to over-react to them. Instead we can hold a loving limit to watching TV, eating sugary food, visiting friends, or whatever they’ve become fixated on, then give our full attention as the inevitable meltdown allows their grumpy feelings spill out.

Children try to escape uncomfortable feelings by grasping on to getting the things that they think will make them happy (not unlike adults and our addictions and cravings).  But there’s a big difference between what they want and what they need. Although it’s good that children have lots of opportunities to negotiate and problem solve, in these moments our kids really aren’t fit for complex communication and decision making and attempting to reason often stokes the fire. What they really need is our help to release those emotions in a safe environment. This is what will actually help them feel better.

I have vivid memories of holding strong loving limits with my extremely strong willed son and him breaking down only to have him literally thank me afterwards acknowledging that he needed that cry. Believe me, I was just as amazed as you will be when the same happens with your child!

How do I hold loving limits?

Hold steady with a limit without bargaining or negotiating, but instead reiterate the limit with calm confidence; “no my boy, I’m not going to put the TV on today” but remain very present and give them your full attention and empathy “and I can really really see how disappointed you are and I care. I’m here, I’m listening.” Showing your child that you understand and care about their feelings can often allow the child to work their way through feeling and offloading their disappointment and grief.

Stress releasing tears and venting

Our child can make the most of our emotional support and it often brings the stress releasing tears that help them get lots of frustration out of their system. It’s often after a big meltdown that children find renewed energy to accept their new challenges. Listening to and allowing a child’s huge protests and upsets about the new baby, for instance, can feel heartbreaking, but it’s often after getting it all out that the same child will clearly show increased affection and patience for their baby sibling.

Slowly but surely

When children are going through big changes, we can help them by making the process of change as incremental as possible. It helps if we can help them familiarize with the new before it happens, visits, chats, books, stories, youtube clips.  Before visiting London with my daughter when she was seven, we went to the travel agents and got a couple of brochures, we searched through websites and books about London and watched videos and talked to my sister on skype to help build my daughter’s sense of connection and familiarity.  Although it was all exciting for her, I knew well that it would also be very challenging to be away from home and from her dad and big brother and to process all those experiences.

It can really help to remember “this too shall pass”

Looking back, I wish I’d been more clued in to the importance of making change as smooth as possible when we emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand when our son had just turned three.  We might as well have taken him to a different planet. If I’d put more thought into how I could access support for myself, I could have found myself on more solid ground sooner knowing that coming to terms with the change would all be easier when he could feel his mum’s happiness and confidence in our new world. We got there in the end.

I strongly recommend that all parents seek extra physical and emotional support at times of change for the sake of their child as much as themselves.


Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a Parenting Instructor and coach, public speaker, human rights advocate, writer and the founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute.  Check out her articles, Peaceful Parenting eCourses, forums and one-year Peaceful Parenting Instructor Training through this website or join over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page The Way of the Peaceful Parent.
  1. […] You might also like to read Helping Children Adapt to Change […]

  2. […] You might also like to read:  Helping Children Adapt to Change […]

  3. […] children adapt to an early childhood environment Helping children adapt to change read more about the healing power of […]

  4. […] I also want to also acknowledge the families who have experienced loss through illness or suicide, families who have lost their business or job, those experiencing overwhelming financial or health problems.  Loss leaves ongoing challenges.  You might find some helpful tips in my article; Helping children adapt to change. […]

  5. […] a lot of changes during pregnancy, and a lot of these changes are felt by our children, and these changes can be extremely unsettling and cause a lot of insecurity. Parents often tell their child how great it’s going to be to have a little brother or sister, […]

  6. […] still going to go through a big process of coming to terms with life with a new sibling, a new house or a new kindy. They’re still going to be influenced by other people and by the dynamics they […]

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *