Reducing family stress around life changes, big and small.
Many families have just experienced an important annual transition: going back to school. We often think about how children have difficulty with changes around these times. But transitions are difficult for parents too, as well as for families as a whole. It is often hard work for everyone to move from the lazy days of summer vacation to the frenetic activity that autumn brings.
Similarly, life changes such as the birth of a new baby, divorce, or a move to a new home present challenges for kids and parents. And even “micro” transitions – such as going from home to school in the morning, and back again at the end of the day – carry many of the same issues. The good news is that transitions – big and small — are also opportunities for positive learning if we are able to manage them successfully.
Putting the following three tips into practice can help:
1. Maintain consistent routines. Most families have routines and rituals around daily activities such as getting ready to leave the house and going to bed at night. During a time of change, continuing these routines can provide helpful structure. (If your family hasn’t established such routines, this would be a good time to do so!) It can be especially difficult to maintain routines as children stressed by change often test their parents’ capacity to stick with limits, for example, by resisting going to bed at the usual time and declining to do homework when reminded. This testing behavior, though frustrating and at times exhausting, is actually a child’s way of wondering just how much in their lives is going to change. By maintaining consistent routines and familiar rituals, parents let their children know that there is a limit to the amount of change that is occurring and that they, the parents, are still in charge. Parents also benefit from the household running as smoothly as possible amid changes. At the same time, it is important not to be too rigid; allowing some flexibility within the structure of the routine is necessary in order to give children the feeling that they can begin to have some of their own power within the family.
2. Prepare for upcoming changes. For example, helping a child picture what will unfold the first day of dance class and even driving by the studio ahead of time will provide a degree of comfort about starting something new. For a parent, these sorts of discussions provide an important window into what is going on inside of the child’s mind at a time of great change. Preparation can also help on a very “micro” level. For example, giving a child who is resisting getting ready to leave the house a five-minute warning before having to put shoes on may avoid 15 minutes of conflict.
3. Allow for a wide range of emotional reactions. Changes can cause an array of mixed feelings, and children need to feel that this mix of feelings is ok. Rather than trying to immediately assuage a child’s sadness about missing her old house by saying “But your new room is so much bigger!” a parent might first say to the child, “Your old room was very special.” This type of mirroring can let children know that it’s ok to be sad, angry, and excited about the changes in their lives. It is important for parents to support each other as well, to help reduce the stress they are likely to experience from managing their own mixed feelings about the changes that are occurring as well as their responses to limits being tested. Having support will improve parents’ ability to recognize and make room for their children’s feelings about transitions.
Though it takes time, remembering these three tips can make children and their families more resilient and can make future life changes easier to manage. Change is the only constant in our lives, so helping to ease the stress of transitions is a lifelong lesson for both children and adults.