Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval on December 24, 2019
The very essence of life is based on change. From the time we’re born through adulthood we are constantly changing both physically and mentally. If change is such a constant in our lives; why do some people seem to easily accept changes and others are thrown by them? We all have experience with change. Some of these experiences may be positive and some may be negative. As we face a new change, we draw on our experiences. If we’ve had a lot of positive outcomes, we are more likely to approach the change with optimism. If we’ve had a lot of negative outcomes, we may approach the change with dread. Understanding what influences our outlook on change is important. We can work to alter how we anticipate and react to change if we find that change causes a significant level of discomfort. In general, we know that people tend to react better when we have time to prepare ourselves for change. As much as we enjoy new and interesting things and adventures, we are most comfortable in predictable situations.
Like adults, children often prefer structure and consistency. The toddler wants to know where their toys are. The preschooler wants to know who is going to pick them up. Changes – both major and minor – to their routines can cause anxiety and stress. Children do not have the life experiences to understand the differences between major and minor changes and may overreact to something as simple as a change in breakfast cereal. However, there are steps adults can take to help children learn to manage change.
- Whenever possible, prepare the child for the change. Have an age-appropriate talk with the child. Tell them what will change, when it will change, and how the change will impact them. Listen to the child and empathize with their feelings. Reassure them that they are safe and loved and everything will be ok.
- If possible, do a dry run before the change occurs. If the child is going to a new school or daycare, take a tour with them before the first day. If you are starting as a new nanny, make a play date with the children before you take on the job. Let them get to know you so the change won’t be so jarring.
- Expose the child to books and technologies that demonstrate similar changes experienced by others. If a child is moving to a new neighborhood, there are books for every age level that relate stories of children moving – leaving behind old friends and making new ones. This lets the child understand that others have had the same experiences. If you can’t take the child for a visit before the move, use the internet to let the child look at their new neighborhood and new house.
A child will generally respond more positively to a change that is expected and occurs within the framework of a familiar routine. The structure of a routine helps a child understand what to expect as well as what is expected of them. They develop a sense of safety and control. A child can be forewarned about expected changes and the transition can be customized to the child’s age and personality. If a routine must change, the child can adapt to new expectations. Unexpected changes can be as trying to children as they are to adults. If a parent is called away on a trip or a teacher moves to another school, the child becomes uncertain about what will happen next. Unexpected changes can make the child anxious and less able to cope as their sense of safety and control is challenged.
Change will occur and it is usually easier to accept if we prepare for it. Children need help to develop the attitude and skills needed to see change in a positive light. Like adults, if children understand the concept and causes of change, they can better manage their reactions.
- The concept of change should be introduced at a young age and consistently reviewed and revised as the child grows. Point out changes to young children as you go through the day. On a walk around the neighborhood, show the child how the flowers have budded and then bloomed. Discuss schedule changes with school-aged children – such as the addition of soccer practice to the weekly schedule or the change in bedtime when school starts. Talk about the good and bad associated with the changes. If children understand that change is a normal part of life and not all negative, they will be better able to cope with change.
- As children reach an age where they can understand cause and effect, help them achieve a positive change. If a younger child frequently gets into trouble for yelling in the house, make a plan to help them change this behavior. You may develop a hand signal that lets them know they are getting loud. When they quiet down, praise them. An older child may want more control over their after-school schedule. Let them list the activities. As long as the parents agree and all tasks are successfully accomplished, the child can determine what activities should be done in what order. This lets the child associate change with positive results, gives the child a sense of control and makes the child less likely to dread or fear change.
- Define change in terms of opportunity. In order to encourage children to embrace change, we need to identify the opportunities that change presents. Changes may result in children feeling uncomfortable – a new school or new neighborhood – and this is normal. This may cause a resistance to change, but adults can help the children cope by identifying and helping children experience the new opportunities that come with the change. Ensuring the child has the opportunity to make new friends by encouraging him to join a sports team, or even just taking a walk to meet the new neighbors can help ease some of the anxiety and stress associated with a change.
- Fear of the unknown is a normal response to a major change. Don’t minimize a child’s fear. A child may act out or withdraw. Let the child express themselves. Encourage them to talk about their feelings and reassure them that what they are feeling is normal. Give them hugs and emotional support as they experience the change.
- For children to see change as another of life’s adventures, you can incorporate intentional changes into your daily life. This can be done in a number of ways. Adding a new meal to the weekly menu or moving around the house furniture can create conversations about change. Was the new food good? Do you like the new furniture arrangement? You can also try new activities such as hiking, canoeing, or even playing board games instead of watching a movie. Take an unexpected weekend trip to a state park or a local attraction. Drive a new way to the mall or soccer game. Changing your daily routine – even in minor ways – shows children you are not fearful of change. This can help teach children not to fear or dread change and help the child build confidence in trying new things.
Children, especially younger children, learn by watching the people around them. They will pick up on subtle clues as to how the adults are handling the change in their lives. If a child in your care is undergoing change (especially a major change like a change in school or caregiver), you can help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the change by modeling a calm, self-confidence and reassuring the child that everything will turn out all right.
Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval is a licensed psychologist practicing in Durham, North Carolina. Working with children and families for over 15 years in schools, hospitals, community agencies, Dr. Formy-Duval is currently in private practice and is also an adjunct faculty member of Amslee Institute
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