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Helping children deal with change

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Have you ever noticed how change affects your children? Many children face lots of changes in their first few years, from massive changes like being separated from the most important person in their life when a parent goes back to work, to little changes like their favourite programmes being moved.

Things like going on holiday, starting a new nursery, moving house – that as adults we tend to regard as exciting – can often seem to make children really unsettled. We notice them suddenly being ‘naughty’, easily upset, and sometimes regressing to behaviour they’ve moved on from. 

Why does change affect children so much?

According to Child Psychologist, Laverne Antrobus, routine is important to children because they crave safety and security, so knowing that things are going to happen in a particular way makes them feel in control.

As adults, we can deal with change better because we can anticipate what that change will be like by finding out everything we want to know about it beforehand, and by using our previous experiences to imagine what it will be like.  

Small children often don’t have the language and understanding to help them anticipate what the change will be like and only have very limited experiences to refer to, so even what seem like very small changes can turn their world upside-down.

The wonderful thing about development is that as a child is getting older they are developing their own ability to manage situations.

Facing a change like starting nursery can feel very tough while they are going through it, but once they realize it wasn’t as difficult as they thought and that they did survived it, it means that those challenges to come don’t feel so hard and feel survivable.

Expert tips: Helping children cope with change

Keep routines

Having routines is really helpful to children, especially having a bedtime routine that happens at around the same time, in the same order every day.

This lets them know that whatever else is changing in their life, there are things that they can rely on to always happen.

Having one-to-one calm time with a parent at the end of the day also gives children the chance to talk over any worries about what’s happening in a secure environment. 

Stay calm and consistent

Easier said than done, of course, especially if the change that is affecting them is worrying for you as well!  However, if your child sees that you can remain calm and consistent, it will send them a sign that you can cope with things changing and they don’t need to worry.

It can be tempting to try and ‘make up for’ difficult things that are happening by excusing them from behaviour you wouldn’t tolerate normally. It will actually make children feel more secure if you don’t do this and keep firm boundaries in place. This will let children know that you are still the same person and that the same things are still important. 

Keep talking

The more you can prepare your child for the change that is happening, the easier it will be for them to deal with.

You’ll also need to allow time for children to ask the questions they need and talk about their concerns after the change has happened – often children seem fine at the time, then it’s afterwards you notice that the impact seems to hit them. 

Be prepared

Preparation is key. For example, if they’re starting a new nursery, practising the journey there and back and talking about what they will have for lunch will help them know what to expect.

Photos and pictures can be really useful for young children – things like making a timeline of a house move with pictures of their old house and new house and the sequence in which things will happen, then sticking it up on their wall, so that they can have a visual reminder of what is going to happen when.

Change and children with autism

Some children, particularly those on the Autistic Spectrum can find unexpected changes in routine especially hard to cope with. Many children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions find information easier to process and retain when it is presented visually so using tools like visual timetables and social stories can really help prepare them for and understand changes in their lives.  

Social stories are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.