Q: My daughter just started 1st grade at a new school after moving to North Carolina from Florida. Though we moved this summer, she continues to struggle with living in a new home, having a new babysitter, and our overall new routine. What can I do to help her cope with the changes?
A: We all deal with change throughout our life and it can be difficult to adjust to even when it is welcomed change. To put this in perspective, if someone decides to go from brown hair to blonde, it is a personal choice; however, that person might still find themselves checking their hair in their mirror frequently over the weeks, asking others for their opinions, and questioning if the transition was right for them. For your daughter, the changes you mentioned may not necessarily be welcomed change. Thus, it may be even more challenging for her to navigate and more time may be needed.
Before discussing some strategies to help your little one, it is worth acknowledging childhood in general is characterized by constant changes. Some common changes children face include: starting solid foods, mom and/or dad returning to work, not wearing a diaper, and starting daycare/pre-k/etc. In addition to frequent changes, most if not all are ones the child does not have control over. Taking a moment to recognize this can aid in our ability to see things from their point of view. So, we encourage you to take some time to understand how your child sees the world and that perspective can help you help them navigate the unknowns.
You might find yourself wondering how do I foster that understanding? Talk and listen to them! While it sounds simple enough, as adults, we can easily get wrapped into day-to-day responsibilities and coping ourselves with all the new changes a move can bring. Set aside time to check-in with your child specifically about the change and how they are feeling. Acknowledging how your child is feeling can be a validating experience for them. It can also be helpful to share examples of how you adjusted when you were younger, as children love listening to stories! During these interactions, the other key component is listening. It is one thing to tell them you are there for them and another to actually be there to fully listen and engage. This can take some time and testing on their part to determine if you will actually be receptive to how they are feeling. Thus, it is important to allow them to take the lead.
Feeling out of control is a common consequence of change. Offering your child choices can help them feel more in control. These choices can be related to routine things such as, what book they want to read for story time or what outfit they want to wear. It is recommended they are given three options and be sure you are okay with whatever option they choose. In addition, consider giving them a warning when something new or different is about to occur. This can further assist in the arena of control because they are then given time to prepare themselves, ask questions, and not be blindsided. Also, consider developing a routine. Structure creates predictability, which leads to an increase in feeling in control. Even as adults, when there is too much chaos and instability, we feel the consequences (e.g., stress). It is no different for children.
In our quest to make things okay for ourselves and our loved ones, the normalcy of the situation is often overlooked. It is okay for your child to be upset. No matter how silly the matter might be that they are upset about, for example, “my new school has a smaller playground” or “the new house doesn’t have stairs,” try not to belittle them. Sharing about the differences may be a way for them to get their feelings out about their new circumstances. Often, they might not be looking for you to fix the situation, rather just listen to them. Another fun ‘game’ to play with children during transitions is ‘things that change, things that stay the same.’ You both list things that have changed (new school, new job, new babysitter, new friends) and things that stay the same (family together, Taco Tuesdays, pool). Changes can be good too… my own bedroom or new furniture are things with moves that are fun and not just an item or person to be missed. Also, listen for areas your child needs help. Maybe he or she is shy and needs some coaching on how to make new friends. Helping your child connect socially by hosting a pizza-making party or some fun activity can also be key to a move. Overall, listen, empathize, let her have control over some things, and help as you can!