One of my friends recently found out her husband has filed divorce papers. In addition to her own shock and heartache, she is worrying about how to tell her two children ages 3 and 5. I referred her to a colleague of mine for professional support and then realized a lot of parents may not think to reach out for guidance on how to help their young children through times of change.
Big life changes can be hard for anyone.
When major changes happen in a young child’s life – like a house move, school change or parents divorcing – it’s important to consider the developmental state of your preschooler and be prepared to help her through the transition.
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Here are some tips:
1. Prepare your preschooler but don’t over-explain it.
Provide your child just enough information to give him a heads-up that his life is about to change and create a time and place where he can hear you. Sit down to the table with some play dough or crayons and paper and as you play or draw together gently introduce the topic.
Here’s an example: “Johnny, I need to tell you about something that’s going to be happening soon. Our family is going to be moving all of our furniture and toys from this house to a new house in a new neighborhood.” Give your child a chance to ask questions but answer his questions with brief answers rather than too much adult information.
Children this age are more concerned about whether their sand box will move with them than about the fact that the family budget requires a down-size and reduction in expenses.
If your child asks a questions you don’t know how to answer, simply say, “That’s a really good question. I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. Let me find out and I will let you know.”
Consult a child therapist, your trusted peers and come back later with as simple and reassuring an answer as possible.
2. Allow your child a permissive space to feel whatever she feels and express those feelings.
For some children change is harder than for others. It’s important that children hear you say, “Change can be hard. All of your feelings are okay! It’s okay to feel sad, mad, worried or scared.”
Try not to be falsely cheerful about the change or down-play your child’s emotions. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to sit with compassion and keep telling her all her feelings are okay and you are here with hugs.
3. Routine, Routine, Routine.
Children thrive when there is predictable structure and routine. Keep the daily routine as normal and predictable as possible. Bedtimes, meal times, family rituals all should be revered and kept in place. This will help your child to feel secure through the transition.
4. Circle the wagons.
Be sure to inform your relatives, family friends, teachers and other care-givers about the change and how you are choosing to handle this with your child and ask them to climb aboard in securing the child’s routine, affirming his feelings, and only answering questions with reassuring, brief concrete answers.
5. Attend to your own self care.
It is so important that you be sure you are attending to your own physical, mental and emotional needs throughout this major change that is bound to affect you as well. Children need their parents to be healthy in every way so take care of yourself. Seek your own counseling, be sure to get your own exercise and feed you body with healthy foods throughout the transition.
6. Seek professional support for your child if signs of maladjustment are there.
If your child’s sleep, appetite, mood, socialization changes for more than a week after learning about this major change, see the support of a registered play therapist and licensed professional counselor or other licensed mental health practitioner who works with young children.
Play therapy is a powerful tool to assist young children in working through their difficulties adjusting to the major change in their lives.
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Children need to know they will have people they love nearby and that they will have concrete items, places and experiences they can count on.