How to help your child deal with a new situation
Parenting books assert over and over again that one of the best things parents can do for their children is to provide them with consistency: a regular routine for feedings, naps, bedtime habits, etc. Still, no matter how much we plan our lives to be predictable, life is just not that simple. From a young age, children may have to deal with spending time away from parents, welcoming a new sibling, moving to a new house, or starting a new school. Even the ancient Greeks knew that “the only thing constant is change.”
Because of its inevitability, teaching our children to deal with change is essential to their success in life. Here are some tips for helping your child deal with new experiences. The skill of Preventive Teaching helps your child know how to behave in every situation.
Talk about it
Discuss with your child what is going to happen. I love the Daniel Tiger song that says, “When we do something new, let’s talk about what we’ll do.” If your child is starting preschool, talk about what the school will look like, what your child will do there, and what will be expected of him or her. Before going to the doctor, you can play “check-up” with your child. You can talk about the need for shots and “practice” giving and receiving pretend shots. Keep your language clear and simple, and allow your child to ask questions.
Give a little taste
Whenever possible, give your child a little experience with a big change before it occurs. If you’re going to be welcoming a new baby into the family, read books about other kids who have experienced this change, babysit for a friend with a baby and have your child be your “special helper”, or find other ways to expose your child to the new situation in small doses before the big day. If your child is starting a new school, try to visit his class and teacher first. We fear what we don’t understand, so the more familiar your child becomes with what is going to happen, the less apprehensive he will likely be about the new situation.
Focus on what is staying the same
Sometimes, we just need to find a little “normal” in life. It can be helpful to point out traditions or routines that will still happen, even with the new changes. The more consistency you maintain in other areas of life, the safer and calmer your child will react to whatever is changing. When families go on vacation, it can be difficult for small children to fall asleep in a different place. The sounds, smells, and even the feel of the different blankets can be concerning to kids. To help my own kids cope, I bring a special toy or stuffed animal from home for them to snuggle. I also pack familiar and favorite books to read as part of our bedtime routine to help them settle into the new space. This strategy works well with welcoming a new sibling, too. A lot of things change when a baby comes home with Mom, but if you make it a point to keep a few routines consistent (like still getting to have Mom read a story before bed, or having dinner at the table all together…whatever is your “norm”), your child will feel loved and will adjust.
Act it out
When you go to a play, it’s not the first time the actors have been on the stage. In order to present a polished performance, they put in hours of practice. The same thing applies to any life-situation. If you want to help your child to handle a new situation well, it’s helpful to practice the behaviors you want them to exhibit.
If your child has a hard time sharing, and you’ve invited a neighbor over for a playdate, talk about how “good friends” act toward each other. Try saying, “Let’s pretend I’m your friend, and I want to play with your toy car. What could you say to me?” Talk about good vs. bad choices, and then role-play the good ones. Make the role-play as real as possible. If possible, role-play in the locations where the new behavior is needed. The more your practice the desired behaviors, the more natural they will become to your child.
Be consistent…and give lots of love
When new situations occur, kids feel uncertain about their place in the world. As a result, they tend to push boundaries in an effort to find them. It can be tempting to let things slide because “he’s dealing with a lot right now” or because “she deserves a break after all this change,” but showing them that you still expect them to follow certain rules can actually help them feel more secure. Make sure rules and expectations are clear, and, most importantly, be consistent in their implementation. It’s important to keep your cool in this process. You may be tired and stressed as a result of the change, too, but try to show extra love and empathy as you uphold your expectations of them.
Change can be hard, and new situations can be scary, but they can also be good. As you help your children develop strategies to cope with new situations, you will give them a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives.