If there's one thing we can consistently count on, it's change. Each day we face a myriad of changes. Some change is easy, and for the most part, predictable. The weather, what's for lunch, what to wear, the music on the radio, and so on. Other change can be quite difficult. This is true for children as well as adults. We, as adults, have a responsibility to assist, support and coach our children in how to cope with and accept change in their lives.
Some change happens by choice, while other change is imposed on us without our input. Both types of change can be difficult. Common and challenging forms of change our kids may encounter include: moving to a new town or new home, changing schools or classrooms, divorce, illness, death of a loved one (including pets), significant changes in existing relationships, emerging new relationships such as a step-parent or different teacher, and other events affecting what's familiar in their world and their routine.
One of the most important things we can do as caring adults is to make ourselves open and available for kids to talk to us about their feelings. We must be careful not to force our children to share their feelings and experiences and we must not force our opinions and ideas on them. We can establish a sense of availability to our kids by paying attention to the cues they send us. What kind of mood are they in? Are they eating and sleeping okay? Are they isolating themselves? Are they keeping overly busy? Are they easy to anger? These can all be signs that our child is experience stress that may be due to a change they're encountering in their life.
When we notice one or more of these cues, it's important to approach a child and ask if they want to, or need to, talk. Some will want to, while others will say things are fine. Don't over-do it, but be sure to make that offer again in the near future. It may also help to just spend time with the child doing an activity or just being in the same room together. Most kids will eventually open up to a trusted adult if given enough time and opportunity. You may be able to get the ball rolling by sharing with them a story about a change you struggled with and how you worked through it.
An important skill we can teach our children, once we've learned it ourselves, is to focus on the things that we can control and to accept the things that we can't control. This needs to be done in a sensitive way, as you don't want to send a child the message that since they couldn't control something they shouldn't have feelings about it. That's not realistic, nor is it the point. The point is to help guide them away from spending too much of their energy and focus on the things they can't change about a situation.
Let them have their feelings about the it-but help them break the situation down into what they have control over, and what they don't have control over. For example, they can control whether or not they share their feelings, or keep them inside. But they can't control that their good friend is moving to another town. They can control whether they will focus on the loss, or whether they will focus on how they can stay connected with their friend.
When change is sudden and unplanned, such as divorce, or the death of someone close, it's a more intense type of change that the child is forced to experience and the stress may be equally intense. In these types of situations, professional counseling might prove helpful.
A few other tools to help children cope with change include sharing children's books about change and/or handling stress and emotions, planning and preparing in advance whenever possible for changes a child will be facing, and maintaining routines and traditions as much as possible through changes.
Some children are especially sensitive to change, and have a difficult time adapting to it. Even seemingly small changes can affect their stress level and their emotions. With these children, and all children, we need to be careful not to dismiss the challenges of their response to change. If it's important to them, our best response is to accept that, and help them to cope. If children learn through us how to manage their response to stress and change, we're helping them build resilience, and a set of skills to work through these events throughout their lifetime.
Article contributed by Pat Sharbonda, supervisor, Crow Wing County Social Services, and Holly Biggins, Family Links program coordinator. Spotlight on Children's Mental Health is produced by the Crow Wing County Local Advisory Council on Children's Mental Health.
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