Change is always present in our lives, but this past year has been a little extra. And by a little extra, I mean A LOT EXTRA! All this change can be hard on our kids and on ourselves. And if you or your child is neurodiverse or has a history of trauma, that adds another layer that makes dealing with change even harder. So we have put together some information on how to talk with your kids about change, help you support them now and in the future with the change that is inevitable, and hopefully help yourself as well.
Some things to talk to your kids about:
Talk about the change. Tell them what to expect, both good and bad, and what the change will mean for all of you. Answer as many of your kid’s questions as you can, and if you can’t, be honest with them about that. Tell them you’ll figure it out together!
And talk about it early, as soon as you know there might be a change coming. Time is your friend when processing a big change. Using visuals as you talk can be really helpful, even for children that are verbal. For children who are reading, this can be a list or chart. For big, complicated changes, have lots of conversations over time.
You can also bring up examples of changes that have happened in the past. Talk about what was good and not so good about it? What did your child learn from the experience? How did they get through it, and what coping skills did they learn? Let them know that every time they experience a change, they’ll become stronger and more prepared for the next one!
Involve your child in decisions about the change. Children typically have no control over the major changes in their lives. By involving and including them in decisions, you help them feel more in control. This can happen in big and small ways, at any age. So give them choices and also ask for their help. Children like to contribute and feel valuable, responsible, and helpful.
Acknowledge your child’s worries and fears. While you’ll want to focus on any positives associated with the change, it’s important to allow your child to feel angry, sad, or scared. These feelings are normal and your child needs to be allowed to express them.
If your child struggles to name what they are feeling, help them label the emotion (ie, anxious, sad, nervous, worried, scared, etc). Putting a name to a feeling makes it less overwhelming and easier to manage. And coaching children through their feelings is a vital learning experience. Talk about and practice emotional regulation strategies when a child is calm, so that the child can use one of those strategies when their emotions start to escalate. Remember that behavior is communication, and difficult behavior could be a way of saying "I'm having a hard time with change."
Also be sure to let your child know that you take their concerns seriously. Like us adults, children simply want empathy, understanding and to be heard.
Encourage your child to write (or draw!) about their feelings around change. Always be there for them to talk to, but sometimes kids need to process on their own. Giving them a journal to write or draw in, is a great way to give them that space.
Show your child the positive ways that you handle change. This can be harder than it sounds. I know I don’t usually react positively to change. But try and talk about how you feel during times of change and about what you do to cope. For example, I show my child the lists I make to help me stay organized and focused and feel more in control.
Keep the connection going. Make sure your child knows that no matter what else changes, you are there for them. If you can, set aside time each day to give your child your undivided attention - even 10 minutes is great. You can talk, play, share an activity. If your child is older, you can watch the same movie or play a video game. A little extra attention doing something you both enjoy reassures your child, making it much easier to cope with life’s changes. And I promise, it will help you as well.
Beyond talking with your kids, here are some other tips for helping them (and you!) through change:
- Keep family routines the same, if you can
- Try to keep other changes in your lives to a minimum
- Talk with your child’s teacher or child care provider to keep them in the loop and get support
- Make sure your child eats well, gets plenty of exercise, and gets enough sleep (again, this can be easier said than done, but we can try)
- If you can, give your family time to prepare for the change. And remember that kids who have had more trouble with change in the past, may need extra time and support in the future.
- And of course, read books about big life changes (see below for help with that!)
We pulled these tips together from a variety of sources, including these articles:
- 7 Ways to Help Kids Cope with Big Life Changes
- Helping Children Deal with Change and Stress
- Ways to Teach Children Positive Coping Skills During Life Changes
- What to Do When Plans Change? 5 Tips for Children with Autism
And we also recommend checking out Purdue University’s page on Families Tackling Tough Times Together.