How to Support Your Child Through Big (or Little!) Life Changes
We are a family that thrives on routine. Regular playdates with a small circle of friends, a part-time childcare schedule to help balance my needs as a working mom, and predictable weekly plans to keep things efficient but still somewhat exciting.
But, as the old saying goes, we need to expect the unexpected, and sometimes routines need to be revamped. Sometimes by choice, and unfortunately, sometimes by force.
As adults, we are much more fluid when it comes to going with the flow and taking life’s inevitable changes in strides. After all, we’ve had practice, experience, and years to cultivate the art of understanding and acceptance. Our children, however? Not so much. Although the world is big, THEIR worlds are still small, and their identities are deeply rooted in the routines they’ve grown accustomed to. So when life throws something new their way, it isn’t always an easy transition for them to embrace or even accept.
Now keep in mind that life changes can be many things. A move, the loss of a pet or family member, a divorce or separation, a transition to a new school, the birth of a new sibling, etc. It doesn’t have to be something monumental or traumatic to rock their little lives, and our children still deserve understanding and compassion regardless of how insignificant we as adults perceive these changes to be.
My daughter recently experienced some life changes that may seem small to some, but to her, even the littlest of changes can bring about BIG emotions. Her best friend recently moved to Texas, which isn’t exactly a short drive from Virginia, and one week later, due to an unspeakable incident at her daycare, we were forced to withdraw her immediately without so much as a goodbye to her old teacher and classmates.
The result? My sweet girl was left feeling lost, confused, lonely, and uncertain. Her whole world fell apart in a matter of weeks, and she was left trying to make sense of why it happened and how to move forward. Now, I’m no parenting expert, but I’ve failed as a mother enough times to know when I’ve managed to do something right. So here are my tips on how to help support your child through big (or little!) life changes.
Try and Establish a New Routine
I can’t speak for everyone, but my preschooler thrives on a routine. It gives structure to her day, allows her to see familiar faces regularly, and helps eliminate that antsy feeling of trying to anticipate what will happen next.
When all these life changes occurred, I did my best to fill her days with as much attention and activities as possible. Daily trips to the playgrounds, afternoons spent at the pool, and admittedly- one too many toys purchased to try and help fill that void inside her little heart.
However, I soon realized that this simply wasn’t enough. As a bright and outgoing child eager to establish long-term bonds and connections with other children, short interactions with kids at the playground only to never see them again wasn’t enough. I attempted to get the phone numbers of parents whose children seemed to connect well with mine, but let’s face it: many people are already locked into their own routines and don’t always have the bandwidth the incorporate you into them.
So instead, I decided to enroll her in a summer camp program. For 3 hours a day, five days a week for ten days, my sweet girl would pack her bag and head to camp with the excitement of knowing exactly where she was going, who would be there, and what fun activities they would do be doing.
The difference is palpable. My mama heart swells with joy every time she comes home, name-drops new friends, and expresses how excited she is to go back tomorrow. And due to this shared activity, it makes it much easier for me to connect with fellow parents whose children are also enrolled in camp, so we can continue to foster their friendship even once summer comes to an end.
Validate their feelings
This one is tough because nobody likes seeing their child upset, so sometimes it seems easier to divert their attention away from those not-so-happy emotions. However, this is more beneficial to the parents than the child. As uncomfortable and heartbreaking as it can sometimes be, it is best to let your child not only feel their feelings but also validate them.
When my daughter started expressing sadness about her best friend moving, my first instinct was to smother those sad feelings with well-intentioned optimism.
“It’s okay, baby! You’re starting preschool soon and will make TONS of new friends!” I would chirp at her excitedly.
“He will come to visit soon. You will see him again one day!”
But the truth is, my daughter didn’t want to hear any of these things. In fact, she didn’t want to hear anything, but instead, for me to hear HER. She misses her best friend, which is a valid and challenging emotion to navigate. So instead of trying to suppress those feelings with words of reassurance, I decided to simply listen and offer new ways for the pair of buddies to stay in contact.
“I know you miss your friend,” I say, patting her blonde, curly head. “It’s tough having him live so far away and a really big change. But maybe we can draw him a picture to send in the mail or ask his mommy if you guys can facetime soon?”
This approach has yielded much better results. Instead of trying to undermine the memories of her most cherished friendship, I have shifted my approach to acknowledging that what she is feeling is normal while offering suggestions to allow her to still feel his presence in new and exciting ways.
Make an Effort to Balance Your Needs with Theirs
This one is tough. When I first realized my daughter was struggling, I tossed my needs aside and committed myself to being there to cater to her every need. After all, I knew she was struggling, and I didn’t want anything in my control to contribute to her sadness.
The result? Burnout. As mamas, I know it is our instinct to always put our children first, but that isn’t always sustainable- at least not in the long run. We need to take care of ourselves to be able to take care of others. So after a few weeks of trying to fill her days with as much fun and excitement as possible, I had to shift gears. This meant allowing more screentime than usual, so I could get some work done, encouraging her to play by herself to help foster her imagination, and most of all, giving myself grace when I felt guilty and like I was failing as a mother.
Find Professional Support when Needed
Depending on the severity of the life change your child is experiencing, it might be worthwhile to find different outlets or forms of support to help them make a healthy transition and teach them how to express their emotions safely and productively.
Play therapy is an excellent option for younger kids because it is conducted through toys, games, and other fun tools to help children explore, express, and safely experience the difficulties they are currently encountering. By working with a licensed Play Therapist, you, the parent, can get more insight into your child’s feelings and better support them at home and during daily life.