Helping your toddler deal with change

Big life changes are often difficult for toddlers to understand. Five mums reveal how they helped their little ones adapt to new situations…

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  • ARRIVAL OF A NEW BABY

    Mum’s story:

    “Ruby’s the boss in our household, so we were dreading her reaction to a new baby,” says Julie Daniel, 38, from Kent, mum to Ruby, 2, and Lottie, 15 weeks. “We told her she was getting a new sister, who was another person to love her. I made sure I wasn’t holding Lottie when Ruby came to visit at the hospital and put a present for Ruby from Lottie in her cot. At home, I rang friends and family in advance, asking them to give Ruby a cuddle before seeing Lottie. Even if I’m feeding Lottie, I’ll take her off my breast if, say, Ruby falls over. I don’t want her to feel left out. I also let Ruby choose her sister’s clothes and help with her bath time.”


    
Expert view:

    Childcare expert Rachel Waddilove, author of The Baby Book: How to Enjoy Year One and The Toddler Book: How to Enjoy Your Growing Child says, “It’s natural for a toddler to feel a little jealous of a new baby and Julie has worked really hard to ensure Ruby doesn’t feel pushed out. A present from Lottie is a great idea and letting Ruby help with bath time means she doesn’t feel the baby is out of bounds. 

    “Having a sibling is a great life lesson for a toddler – all children have to learn to wait their turn at times and not be centre stage, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about putting your baby’s needs before your older child at times. Openly lavish lots of love on both your new baby and older child, and emphasise the fact that they will have lots of fun together 
and love each other.”

  • STARTING NURSERY

    Mum’s story

    ”I went back to work when Joshua was 6 months old. The childcare was shared between my in-laws and my parents. Recently, my in-laws had to bow out, so we needed a nursery place two days a week,” says Fiona Ellis, 34, from Hertfordshire, mum to Joshua, 2½. “I went to see several nurseries and took Joshua with me, explaining we were looking for somewhere nice for him to stay while we were at work. He asked me if it was like Balamory. I tried not to make a big deal out of the whole thing – and we eventually found a perfect nursery. We left him for an hour, then two hours, then a whole session. He cried a little bit at first, but he seems to be fine now.”

    Expert view

    “Children who’ve enjoyed one-to-one attention, like Joshua, often find the transition to nursery difficult, but Fiona did everything right,” says Rachel. “She’s explained where Joshua is going and why, taken him on visits and settled him in gradually so he can adapt. The analogy with Balamory helped Joshua understand the concept, and there are some good storybooks that will help your child understand. The most important thing is not to make too much of the issue in your child’s mind. 
If you’re happy and positive about going to nursery, the chances are your child will be, too.”

  • COPING WITH BEREAVEMENT

    Mum’s story

    “Harri’s granddad had cancer,” says Elinor Darby, 39, from Chester, mum to Harri, 3. “When we visited the hospice, I explained to Harri that his granddad was in a special place where he has tablets to stop him from hurting. I said he’d be sleepy and wouldn’t be able to play, but Harri kept pulling at his hand asking him to get up. I felt it was best if he didn’t visit again.

    When dad died, Harri kept asking when he was coming back. Harri didn’t come to the funeral but I’ve let him visit the grave to leave flowers. He didn’t like the idea of his granddad underneath the ground and wanted to know how he could get out. 

    I explained he was already in heaven – and what a lovely place it is. I’ve tried 
not to cry in front of Harri, but it’s so difficult keeping everything in.”
 

    
Expert view

    “Under 5s have little abstract sense of time or distance, so ‘final’ and ‘forever’ mean little to them,” says parenting coach Sue Atkins, author of Raising Happy Children for Dummies. “It’s normal for children of Harri’s age to not fully understand when someone dies and to ask when they’re coming back. Elinor did well to explain to Harri about his granddad being tired and poorly and to try to prepare him. Even if he didn’t fully comprehend what was wrong, at least he wasn’t frightened by the changes he saw in his granddad.

    “‘Going to heaven’ is a lovely way of explaining people passing to a young child. Knowing his granddad is in a happy, beautiful and even fun place where he feels better can be a great comfort for a young child. If you have different views, it’s no problem – it’s about being honest, truthful and consistent with the message you are passing on, relevant to the child’s age and understanding.

    “Elinor was scared to show how she felt in front of Harri but it’s OK, and natural, to cry and grieve in front of your little one.”

  • MOVING HOME

    Mum’s story

    “Mary-Louise was 2 when we moved,” says Alison Collins, 28, from Hampshire, mum to Mary-Louise, 3, Sophie, 21 months and Bonnie, 10 months. “Before moving we showed her the new home, and when we packed, we gave her a box to put her toys in. She was first into the new house and we let her choose her room and what colour she wanted it painted. Soon after moving, my husband (who’s in the armed forces) was sent abroad and Mary-Louise was convinced he was at our old house, so we went there so she could see the house was empty.”

    

Expert view

    “Giving Mary-Louise a box turned packing into a game,” says parenting expertChristine Meadows. “Alison got her daughter excited about the new house, which helped with the transition. Letting her choose a room and its colour will also have helped her see the move as something positive.

    “It’s natural to focus on sorting out the new house immediately following a move, but try not to break from routines. The house may be different, but routines don’t have to be. Also, try to find time for fun activities, like visiting the local playground or swimming pool. It’s inevitable that a young child will miss her old house and friends. If you can visit or write to friends, it can make her feel more settled.”

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  • INTRODUCING A NEW PARTNER

    Mum’s story

    “I split up with Joel’s dad when my son was 6 months old and started seeing Chris when Joel was 2,” says Toni Griffiths, 30, from Cardiff, mum to Joel, 3. “A couple of months into our relationship, Chris came over for a drink and Joel woke up and came downstairs. It wasn’t the best way for them to meet! I told Joel that Chris was my special friend and we began spending time together on weekends. Joel wasn’t keen on Chris holding my hand at first and would knock us apart. He still gets jealous occasionally, so I’m not too affectionate with him in front of Joel. Otherwise, it’s going OK!”

    Expert view

    “Children can have strong reactions to a new partner,” explains consultant Clinical Psychologist and Family Therapist, Dr Sarah Helps. “Parents need to get the balance right between letting little ones know that it’s up to you to make decisions about who you spend child-free time with while also recognising that your toddler may well fear that mum will lose interest in him and go off with her new boyfriend. It’s important to broach the subject and explore your child’s fears.

    “Although Toni was caught unawares, there’s no set length of time to wait before introducing a new partner – it depends on the age and temperament of your child, 
the length of time since the separation and if there are still strong emotions about it.
Prepare your child for a meeting by explaining that adults and children need friends, build up the relationship very gradually and avoid turning mother/child time into mother/boyfriend-plus-child-tagging-along time. Also, try to make sure you keep displays of affection to a minimum and that conversations remain focused on your child and don’t end up being about your own personal plans for the evening.”

    Don’t forget…

    Your tot may not always understand phrases you use. When you say ‘moving house’ she may wonder how you move a house. Use toys and drawings to explain things.

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