Because children are constantly grappling with lots of new information, it stands to reason that the more time they spend in the places and with the things, the rituals and the people that they are already very familiar with, the more secure and in control of their world they will feel and the less likely they are to become overwhelmed.
Children love and thrive on routine, rhythm and generally 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 in a new 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, 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. 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. Being accepting of 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.
There’s just so much knowledge and so many skills that we adults have acquired that we can’t help taking for granted because we don’t have to worry about what’s already known, it just is as it is. But for our children, there’s so much around them every day, even in the boring adult conversations they overhear, that’s not yet familiar or even understood to them. Learning and coming to terms with the new takes a lot of energy and can cause a lot of frustration, it’s no wonder they need so much 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. 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 and on and on it goes. Then there’s the really big ones like divorce, serious illness, emigration, accidents or a death in the family. There will always be more changes ahead, change is sometimes unexpected, sometimes exciting, sometimes a relief but nearly always challenging, it can be somewhat destabilizing and sometimes traumatic.
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.
Change always involves the letting go of how things have been to one extent or another. 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.
You can particularly expect an increase in defiance or even aggression at times of extra stress relating to changes. It’s important to express the limits that reflect that we can’t allow destructive behaviour, but it doesn’t help their behaviour or their emotional wellbeing if we’re harsh or punitive. Even when we express limits or remind them of the tasks at hand, it’s our empathy and understanding of the big feelings that are driving their tendency to be oppositional which allows them to feel safe and secure and ultimately to move through the difficult feelings that change brings. Because the child who has some smouldering feelings relating to anticipated or recent change is less likely to identify and express their feelings eloquently and more likely to show those feelings in generally 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 our already stressful load even greater by making life difficult for us, they simply can’t manage big feelings without our emotional support.
Change can make a child very grumpy and parents can feel like they’re walking on eggshells avoiding giving requests or corrections in the hope of avoiding 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, but instead hold any particular limit like “no” to t.v., sugary food, visiting friends, whatever they’ve become fixated on, then give our full attention as the inevitable meltdown allows their grumpy feelings to start to spill out.
Children try to escape uncomfortable feelings by grasping on to getting the things that they think will make them happy. But there’s a difference at such times between what they want and what they need. Although it’s good that children have lots of opportunities to negotiate and problem solve, these times when they’re containing a lot of frustration are the times that they need our help to gain some emotional release and they’re really not fit for complex communication and decision making. Only you as a parent can attune to what your child really needs. So when you identify that your child’s all full of frustration, holding a limit with love and empathy gives them an opportunity for a safe outlet of frustration while feeling cared for.
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 t.v. 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 helps 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.
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 a bit quicker 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 recommend that parents seek extra physical and emotional support at times of change for the sake of their child as much as themselves.