Helping Your Child Cope with Change
By Larry Deavers
Change is an on-going part of life. Some of us are more resistant to it that others, but change invariably brings about increased stress, anxiety and self-doubt. Whether it’s a new school year, a move, changes in family or community, change occurs as a normal part of life and even positive change brings about tension and uncertainty. While these changes can be stressful, there are steps you can take to help your child prepare for and adapt to new situations.
Remember to focus on your child’s needs. Change for one member of a family typically creates stress for the entire family. When parents face change in the midst of balancing work, home, family and finances, they can feel their own stress mounting and may feel overwhelmed. Without intentionally focusing attention on what your child needs during this time, you can be tempted to minimize their stress because it may seem trivial compared to adult worries. However, keep in mind that your child’s coping skills are not as mature as yours, so proportionally, their stress is just as distressing to them as yours is to you.
Give your child choices. Each individual is different, so what we need to help us deal with change will vary, as well. Within the context of what has to be done (i.e., going to school, homework, chores, etc.), let your child make decisions about when certain things occur that will help them be most successful. Choosing where to do homework, whether they have a snack first, or if it needs to be immediately after school, can help them feel empowered, as well as invested in making the plan work. In the midst of changes that are beyond their control, allowing them these kinds of choices can help them feel more empowered and secure.
Allow regular downtime for your child. In trying to provide a rich diversity of childhood experiences, it can be tempting to over-commit yourself and your child to multiple activities. It can be easy to try to provide so many experiences for their child that the stress of keeping up damages the family, as a whole, and may even lead to burnout for all involved. Remember that we all need downtime to catch our breath, relax and simply enjoy our time together. Being mindful of balancing the right amount of activities, responsibilities and relaxation time is essential for a healthy family life.
Establish healthy routines. Well balanced, consistent routines give you and your child a sense of feeling “in control” of your life and provides direction. A healthy daily/weekly routine involves getting adequate sleep, allowing for healthy eating, physical activity, family time, outside activities, alone time and time for chores and homework. Teaching your child the importance of maintaining balance in all phases of their lives is an essential part of maintaining good physical, emotional and mental health throughout their lives.
Allow your child to express their feelings. The ways this can be done vary depending on the age and personality of your child, but providing opportunities for them to express their worries, frustrations and stress can be an important way of recognizing their needs, providing reassurance and helping them think thorough their coping skills. These opportunities may come in the form of playing games, going for ice cream, asking questions while driving, or simply checking in with them to see how their day is going. Providing non-invasive opportunities for your child to be heard reinforces that you care about them and that when they do need help, you are more than ready.
Encourage family involvement and support. When children feel stressed, they may withdraw from spending time with family and friends. You may notice them being more moody and less engaged in activities they normally enjoy. This kind of isolation can often increase the level of stress they feel and prevent them from engaging in activities that can actually help relieve stress, such as physical activity, time with friends and conversations with family. Without forcing too much, parents can help by encouraging their children to stay engaged in these healthy coping activities.
Be an example. Your child’s primary coping skills will come from those they observe in their parents. If you practice healthy strategies, your child is much more likely to learn from what they see you do. However, when we resort to unhealthy strategies to cope with change and stress (e.g., over-eating, drinking, emotional outbursts, social isolation, etc.), then it will be difficult to convince our children to do otherwise.
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.