The last couple of weeks have seen us inundated with clients whose children ranging in age from 3 to 16 are presenting with aggressive, uncooperative or regressing behaviour. The common thread has been that a change has recently occurred or is about to happen in their lives. This change could be as simple as a new class teacher or as profound as moving countries but there is no question that change affects children even if on the surface they appear to be coping very well.
To help parents through the changes in their child's life, here are 5 tips that may help calm your children's anxieties during this time.
1) CREATE CONSISTENCY WHERE YOU CAN: No matter what is happening in your family's life that is creating a state of flux for your child, it is helpful to create some consistent patterns through the day or week that are reliable. These can be used to remind your child that not EVERYTHING is changing and some things stay the same, There are lots of practical ways to do this depending on the age of your child. Visual schedules of after school activities or chores around the house or expected behaviours are one idea that can be easily adapted to suit you family and one child could have several different ones on the go! Consistent rules can also be helpful as long as you are able to implement the consequences and don't threaten things that don't happen. Parents and caregivers are their child's biggest source of security even when they don't have the time to be and so ensuring that each day your child has set time with you which they can look forward to and know when it will occur is another tool that can be used.
2) POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT : It is incredible what a little bit of positive feedback can do to help centre someone when they are feeling lost. Even adults on a bad day will be likely to take comfort in knowing that they have done something right. Therefore, when a change is on the horizon, in process of occurring or is very recent, try to focus as much as possible on rewarding your child for what they do well rather than focusing on the regression in their behaviour and what you wish they had done better.
3) MAKING YOUR CHILD FEEL INVOLVED: Whether the change in question is affecting the whole family or just the child who is demonstrating difficult behaviour, it is important to give your child some control over a situation which is probably not entirely of their choosing or that they are unable to fully understand. Going out of your way to include and involve them in an age appropriate way can help. Examples could include allowing toddlers to help bring you things you need for your new baby's nappy change; allowing a teenager to decorate their own room in a new house or inviting your school age child to choose which friends from their new school they want to invite and when before they ask.
4) PREPARATION PREPARATION PREPARATION: Whilst some change in life comes with no warning, many changes are things that we build up to over a period of time. Every parent needs to judge how much warning and preparation their children need but if they are not warned at all, the behaviour regression is likely to be more profound and longer lasting. For many children and teenagers, the preparation needs to be more than just talking about it. You might try and allow them to visit a new house or school; meet a new babysitter or read books about gaining a new sibling. When a change occurs that no one is prepared for eg: an illness or death in the family - it is about allowing your child to have opportunities to deal with how their life has changed after the event using similar strategies.
5) TALK ABOUT IT: It is vital that children understand that it is ok to ask questions and let you know that they are struggling. The change that has occured is unlikely to be a circumstance that will change eg: a new school or new sibling but they need to feel that they are being heard when they raise concerns. For older children you may be able to acually ask them how they are feeling but with younger ones, reading books about the topic in the style of conversational reading where they are given an opportunity to process the change can help as well. Drawing pictures or building the new thing out of lego can also help.
The reality is that even as adults choosing to change things in our lives, when that change comes, we often feel displaced or out of our depth. Therefore we need to allow children to express their feelings and the expectations we have of them when it comes to their capacity to manage change needs to be realistic.
We hope that all changes coming your family's way are positive ones!
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