Change Can Be Scary for Kids but Here’s How Parents Can Help Them Embrace It

Change Can Be Scary for Kids but Here’s How Parents Can Help Them Embrace It

After a back-breaking day of gutting the kids’ shared bathroom to start a renovation, my husband could not understand why our 12-year-old daughter was so upset. Despite her initial excitement over the project, at this point-of-no-return, she suddenly expressed that she “wanted her old bathroom back.”

In reality, we should have seen this coming. From starting and ending each school year to getting her haircut, change has never been easy for my firstborn. And in that moment, it became apparent to me that even changes which are ultimately positive can be really stressful for some kids.

That’s not unusual. In general, people, and particularly children, are wired for stability and predictability, says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. For that reason, change is often hard—especially since there is a sense of loss that can come with it. “Every time that a child experiences a change, they have to give up or say goodbye to the old, before they can say hello to the new,” Dr. Klein explains. “This can feel like a loss, even when the outcome will ultimately be positive.”

In the case of our bathroom renovation, my daughter says she had memories in the old space that felt like they were being lost—her dad blow drying her hair at the former vanity, trying makeup for the first time, and even bath time when she was younger. Seeing the bathroom in a demolished state likely created a feeling of instability, says Dr. Klein. A positive change can still be very abstract in the moment, she adds. 

Dr. Klein says that, as parents, it’s our job to help children through these hard feelings. Saying that, “we know they’ll be happier in the end,” can sometimes cause children to dig into the negativity even more and argue that we, as parents, don’t understand what they’re losing in the process.

That’s why it’s OK to give children time to feel sad about a change that is hard for them while also giving them coping skills to deal with it. While it’s not always easy—and it can be frustrating—these experiences are all part of developing life skills.

“These smaller and lower stake changes are all preparing children to eventually handle bigger changes they’ll be faced with,” Dr. Klein continues. “Don’t try to gloss over change. Instead, use these moments to talk to your child about how they are feeling.”

It’s not always obvious why a child is feeling stressed or even lashing out about a change in their life. But it’s critical to acknowledge their experience, even when it’s a change you might find positive or beneficial. Getting feelings out in the open is always important, says Dr. Klein.

Then, talk through whatever that change might be as well as some situations surrounding the change that could be troubling them, Dr. Klein suggests. If it’s a move, ask: What do you think it will be like in the new house? If it’s a new school year, ask: What do you think your teacher will be like? Follow that up by asking what some of their worries might be and how to face them.

Preparation—whenever possible—is one of the best ways to help children deal with an upcoming change, says Koraly Pérez-Edgar, Ph.D., professor of child studies and psychology and associate director of the social science research institute at the Pennsylvania State University.

“Talking through an upcoming change and any worries associated with it, as well as how to deal with those concerns, is putting tools in the child’s toolbox,” adds Dr. Pérez-Edgar.

Of course, preparation won't look the same for every family. Destiny Bennett, who creates content as Mama Bennett, and is the mom of an 9-, 6-, and 4-year-old, says that several moves have meant her children have had to adapt to multiple changes—new living situations, new people, and even new states. But she is constantly keeping her children informed of what’s coming. “One thing that we try to do is provide a lot of advanced notice,” Bennett says. “We’re currently preparing to move again and we’re spending a lot of time talking about it.”

 Julie Neale, a mother of two, ages 10 and 18, and founder of Mother’s Quest, a podcast for moms, can remember taking the time to prepare her oldest for each new school year. She says her differently wired teen has always struggled with some anxiety and planning ahead has been a helpful way to address change.

“When we see big transitions on the horizon, we try to anticipate questions and provide additional support to know what to expect,” Neale says. “When he was in first grade, this looked like making arrangements to visit the second grade classrooms before the school year ended. Now, as a graduating senior, it has looked like anticipating varsity basketball tryouts and homecoming falling on the same week and making a plan to ensure some downtime among the pressure. He also requested a meeting with the coach ahead of time to ask some questions and to be clearer on expectations.”

At the heart of change is often a sense of being out of control, says Dr. Pérez-Edgar. Finding ways that children can have some sense of being in control during a change can make a world of difference in how they handle it.

In the case of our bathroom renovation, that meant bringing our daughter along to pick out the tile and the granite. She felt part of the decision-making process and could start to better visualize what the new bathroom would look like.

Leigh Strickland, a mother of 7- and 9-year-old girls, gave her children a sense of control during a period of stress and uncertainty due to moving by setting aside a block of time each day where she turned all of her attention to them, individually.   

“During that time, they are in control, and they call the shots about what we do—within reason, of course,” Strickland says. “My job keeps me busy but it’s a time when my laptop and my phone are completely away, and I’m focused on doing what they each want during their dedicated time. I set a timer to manage expectations.”

Of course, sometimes we don’t have the chance to prepare for change and the situation can feel very out-of-control. A sudden death or another traumatic life experience can happen unexpectedly. School closures at the height of the pandemic is a prime example, but finding ways to address the feelings of uncertainty can help to quell some anxieties. For example, Dr. Pérez-Edgar says her family started takeout Tuesdays during the pandemic and the kids chose where to order from. “We were providing a sense of control and predictability that helped during a time when things felt very uncertain for everyone,” says Dr. Pérez-Edgar.

Life is more commonly about change than stability, says Dr. Klein, but parents can be their children’s biggest cheerleaders when it comes to adapting to transitions.

“When a child gets through a change, take the time to celebrate that,” she sums up. “Cheer for them leading up to the change, support them through it including recognizing what was hard about it, and then remind them they did it. Acknowledge that it was scary at times, and they were apprehensive, but they also got through it in the end. When we take the time to recognize the ways in which our kids have adapted to change, we give them new strength—and that’s powerful for their future.”

Now that our bathroom renovation is complete, my daughter has been able to appreciate the tangible benefits of the update like having more space and better lighting. But recognizing that she ultimately found a way to embrace a change that made her feel uncertain was far more empowering.

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