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How to prepare your children for change

Anxious child with parent
Credit: iStock.com/altanaka

When children are faced with change in their young lives, it’s not easy to predict how they’re going to react. It might be changing to a new day-care or preschool, moving to a new house, or family members moving away.

Psychologist Dr Judith Locke, author of The Bonsai Child, says it’s important to remember that children often cope better with change than their parents expect.

“It’s not unusual for parents to think change will be difficult and so they ‘over prepare’ their child. It’s a similar situation for adults, for example the day before you start a new job, people might be asking you, ‘How are you feeling about it?’ or ‘Is everything okay?' and almost suggest that things might be trickier than what they’re really going to be,” Dr Locke says.

“The trouble is, with the best intentions, you can start to signal that something is going to be tricky when it might not be at all.  When it comes to children and change, it’s best to look at the bigger picture and help the child become more resilient and face age appropriate challenges.

“That means, when they don’t get what they want, not to over compensate, or apologise when things aren’t as perfect as they’d hoped.  That will prepare your child for whatever they’ll face in the future.”

I think the conversation is best when it comes from the child and not the parent – so if the child is about to start a new preschool or day-care and is worried they won’t make any friends, you need to listen to their concerns.
Dr Judith Locke

Letting the child lead the conversation

Dr Locke suggests that when you’re on the verge of change and want to properly prepare your child, the conversation should mostly come from the child, rather than entirely from the parent – and not to give the child too much information all at once.

“I think the conversation is best when it comes from the child and not the parent – so if the child is about to start a new preschool or day-care and is worried they won’t make any friends, you need to listen to their concerns,” Dr Locke says.

“But you also need to normalise the challenge and let them know their feelings are normal.”

Shifting your mindset

Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek talks about the importance of describing feelings not as nervous, but about being excited.

Simon Sinek believes the body responds to nerves and excitement in the same way, so it’s a matter of interpreting it differently and training your mind to perform under pressure by shifting your mindset.

When it comes to parenting, it’s a matter of telling your child that it’s an exciting time, as opposed to being a nerve-wracking time.

“Mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy talks about observing things without thinking too much about it. For example, if you’re about to talk in a meeting you might have a few butterflies, ideally you notice it without catastrophising it, ‘I’m going to make a fool of myself because I am so nervous’,” Dr Locke says.

“You can tell your child that sometimes people feel funny in their tummy when they’re excited, and it’s typical to be nervous or excited.”

Be realistic about reassurances

But, Dr Locke urges parents to be very wary of not over doing the constant reassurances. If you tell your child that everything is going to be perfect, you’re setting them up for some disappointment because nothing is entirely perfect.

“The trouble is parents will overly reassure kids and make them think things are going to be better than they are, to relieve their child’s current anxiety," Dr Locke says.

“Some parents will promise things, such as ‘You’ll make heaps of new friends,’ or ‘You’ll love your teacher!’.  When you say things will be perfect, you’re setting them up for disappointment because it’s a kind of nonsense reassurance.

“The problem with that is if, for example, your child is going to have a painful medical procedure, if you tell them it’s not going to be too bad, they’ll be more traumatised when it is painful because you’ve made them feel better - but by telling them an untruth, which won’t allow them to be ready if it is a bit painful.

“So it’s important to be realistic about things because you’re properly preparing them. Instead you could say, ‘It might be painful but you’re strong. Remember that time you got those stitches and you were so brave?’.

“In the same way that when any adults are learning a new skill such as step classes or Zumba. You might feel very uncoordinated at first, but you have to endure that uncomfortable feeling to eventually get there.”

Communication is crucial

No matter what change your child might be facing – whether it’s something seemingly small such as a favourite neighbour selling their house and moving away, or a parent having to spend more time away from the home due to work commitments – communication with your child is crucial.

“It’s very important to lower your child’s expectations and not make them think everything will be perfect immediately.  There’s no point telling them that when we move to a new house, it’s going to be just like the old house. Try to make them see what happens as an adventure,” Dr Locke says.

Dr Locke encourages parents, when it comes to change in a child’s life, to look at the ‘big picture’.

“It’s all about helping your child become more resilient so they can face age appropriate challenges. It means when they don’t get what they want, you don’t over compensate or constantly apologise to them about things not being absolutely perfect at all times,” Dr Locke says.

“If we protect kids from that uncomfortable feeling then they won’t attempt to try anything they’re not initially good at. So, it’s very important to lower their expectations and not make them think it’s going to be perfect immediately.

“If you help your child become more resilient you will prepare your child for whatever they face in the future.”