Helping Young Children Adjust to Change: From the Author of Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows

Photo by New Horizon Press

Help kids develop the tools to manage anxiety, refrain from catastrophic thinking and focus on the positive, and you can help them adjust to major life changes both now and in the future.

From the time they are babies, children like things to be predictable. Regular feedings, regular bedtimes, consistent expectations and rituals — all of these things help a child to feel safe, secure and loved. Yet it is said that the only constant in life is change. So how can we help our routine-loving young children reconcile the changes they will routinely encounter in life? How can we help them adapt when they must spend time away from mother, they start school, or they must say goodbye to beloved friends?

Perhaps the first and most important step is to talk to the child about what is going to happen. Be as honest and direct as possible. If it is a move, describe what the new town and new house will be like. If it is a new school, describe what you know about the school, the classroom and the teacher. If it is a divorce situation, explain as accurately as you can what the child’s life and routine will be like once the divorce occurs. The more the child knows what to expect, the less likely his fears are to run amok.

When you talk to the child, emphasize things that will remain the same during the period of change. Remind a child who is moving that he will still have his family with him, remind the child of divorce that he will still have two parents who love him, and remind the child who is off to a new school, that his neighborhood friends will be waiting for him at the end of the day.

For major life changes, it may be helpful to create a bridge. This is a technique often employed with adoptive children. No child experiences more sudden and dramatic change than an adoptive child. When an adoptive child is welcomed into a new home, very often new parents will create a Welcome book, which will contain photos and memorabilia from his old life, and then photos of his new family and home. This type of book is a concrete way to help a child “bridge” his experience, and to have a sense of continuity between his old world and his new world. This type of book can also be used with other types of experiences such as relocating, or changing schools.

While the change is occurring, it is important to try to create as much predictability and consistency in the child’s life as possible. The more things that are predictable, the safer the child will feel. Make sure rules and expectations are clear, and, most importantly, be consistent in their implementation.

Encourage your child to talk about what he is feeling. Don’t be frustrated if he seems to be unable to articulate his feelings. Depending on the magnitude of the change, he may be too overwhelmed to understand how he feels. Also, many younger children have not yet developed a “feeling vocabulary”. A picture book which mirrors the child’s feelings and contains a positive message about change can be helpful in getting children to process their feelings. Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows: Helping Children Adjust to Change [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], a story picture book I wrote about a caterpillar who is terrified to become a butterfly, aims to meet this need. There are talking points in the back of the book to help parents broach a discussion about change, and strategies for managing their anxiety.

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Ask children what they fear about the impending change. You may be surprised what you hear. Like adults, children can catastrophize and hone in on worst case scenarios. You may hear things like “No one will talk to me at my new school. I’ll never make friends” or in the case of the divorce, “I’ll never get to see Dad again.” Look out for words like “always” “never” “everyone” or “no one”. These kinds of words are indicative of all or nothing thinking and can cause a child undue anxiety. Challenge the child when you hear statements like this, and help them develop a more realistic understanding of what the new experience may be like.

Arm the child with tools and strategies he can implement if some of his fears are realized. For example, if nobody talks to the child on the first day of school, suggest a proactive strategy such as asking someone who is by himself to play, or suggest that the child approach a group and introduce himself. Teaching a child skills to be proactive can have a lifelong positive impact. Persons who feel they can positively impact their circumstances experience less anxiety and depression, and enjoy better physical health over the course of their lives.

A change often involves loss — the nuclear family in the case of divorce, friends in the case of relocation, time with mom in the case of kindergarten. Children should be permitted to grieve these losses. Acknowledge their feelings and recognize the loss as real.

Lastly, ask the child what might be some good things that can come out of the change. Many times children haven’t even considered that change can be life enhancing and bring about positive experiences. You might want to point out changes in the child’s past that brought positive experiences into the child’s life.

So why is it important to help kids adjust to change? It is true, most children will probably adjust with or without our help. Aside from alleviating anxiety in the short term, helping children adjust to change offers parents a great teaching opportunity. If you give kids the tools now to manage anxiety, refrain from catastrophic thinking and focus on the positive, they are much less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders down the line. A positive attitude toward change will serve a child well both now and throughout life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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