Most adults find big changes unsettling, but for small children any alteration to their lives or routine can be stressful.
When it comes to life-changing events, such as moving house, having a new sibling or parents separating, the impact on toddlers and pre-schoolers can be huge – and as parents, we shouldn’t underestimate this.
By putting ourselves in our child’s shoes, we can get an idea of how each scenario might seem from their point of view and how we can help them.
The first step to easing children through change is to get down to their level, says Alexandra Maeja Raicar, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author Child-Centred Attachment Therapy (CAT): the CcAT programme.
“Children may not understand expressions such as ‘moving house’ and wonder, ‘How do you move a house?’ By using toys or drawings, you can give them a point of reference that will help them understand.”
“With very young children, the key is to make changes seem normal rather than making a huge fuss,” says Rosemary Wells, author of Helping Children Cope With Change and Loss. ‘Talk to them as much as possible and focus on all the good things about the change.’
Change isn’t something you should shelter your children from – it’s unavoidable, and the last thing you want to do is make your toddler or preschooler afraid of the transitions he’ll face in life. It’s how you go about dealing with change that makes all the difference.
Help your child cope with change…
1. Starting nursery
“Arranging a playdate with other children who will be in their class beforehand will help prepare them for being with lots of children – especially if they’re an only child,” says Rosemary.
‘This is much more important than them knowing how to read. Teach them to go to the toilet and sort themselves out afterwards, so they’re ready to cope at nursery.
“Some nurseries allow children to attend for 2 hours a day and gradually build up. Tell them what time mummy, or someone else, is coming to get them so they know what to expect.”
2. Starting childcare
“If your child’s never been left without her mum or dad before, she’s going to feel it,” says Rosemary.
“If you just say, ‘Mummy’s going to work,’ she can’t picture it and might think you’re never coming back!
“Show her a clock and say, ‘When the little hand gets to there, I’ll be back home.'”
3. Going on holiday
It’s not just permanent changes that can be stressful. Any alteration to your usual routine, like a holiday, school holidays or a short stay with relatives at Christmas or Easter, can have an effect. As mum Leona K in our Facebook community says:
“I’ve actually found the change of the summer holidays hard and I am only a week in.
“My son is so used to getting up and ready etc for preschool that when I told him we weren’t going he’s been having meltdowns!
“It’s really affected his behaviour as the structure is all gone. I’m ashamed but I’ve gone the other way and had to introduce a naughty step he is 3 and never needed it before.”
If it’s a change of routine because of school holidays, try to keep some structure to your days.
If the place you’re visiting is very different from home, Alexandra suggests showing your child videos of where you’re going.
‘Prepare your child for the long journey and make sure he has his favourite toy or comforter. And where possible, stick to some parts of his old routine. Also, try to imagine yourself being a little child, to remember how strange adult life can seem.’
Kathryn G, another mum in our Facebook community, has 2 children with autism. She tells us: “We use a lot of visuals to communicate what we are doing.
“We recently just went on holiday for a week. Before we went I printed pictures of the ferry, the island, the house, and all the family members that would be there.”
4. Family break-up
Splitting up is painful and stressful enough for you, but at least you understand why things haven’t worked out. “From your child’s perspective, the 2 people he’s closest to are no longer getting on,” says Alexandra.
“Perhaps you’re having arguments and being angry and hurtful towards each other. Even if they don’t understand the words you use, children will pick up non-verbally that you don’t like each other.
“Because small children tend to see themselves as the centre of everything, they might feel that they made the parent go away or that they weren’t good enough,” she continues.
“If one parent is leaving, the child should see where they’ll be living, so he can picture them there. A photo of the absent parent will help your child.”
5. Moving house
“Going to live in a new home is a completely new environment,” says Alexandra. “Everything’s strange and can feel overwhelming. Some children find change exciting, whereas others might get anxious and clingy. Reassure them that their parents or carers will still be around.
“Once you know you’re going ahead with the move, involve your little one as fully as possible. Get him to help pack his own things.
“Create a little book with him as the heroine or hero and include photos of the new house and the room he might be moving into. If he’s changing nurseries, show him a picture of the new one. Explain what’s happening several times so it becomes familiar.”