It has been said on numerous times in many contexts and by wiser and more eloquent beings than me (?I/?myself), that there’s nothing as constant as change. Change is inevitable. Indeed, a life without change would be catastrophic because unless we adapt, alter or develop (all changes) then our very survival is at risk. Perhaps less alarming, but also true, is that without change, life would be just be terribly boring! So, why, then, do so many people find change difficult?
Change can rock the most grown up and mature among us. Our general day to day anxieties are allayed by predictability and routine. When we mess with the predictable things in life, our brains can become a little more hyper-aware of possible new threats. Of course, there are some variables which will determine how different adults cope with perceived threat and this variability is exactly the same for children.
We know that the sort of change that might upset someone has to do with how important they think the change is. When I talk to children about change, I usually like to talk to them about the changes they have already made, without even noticing – the change in their height, their change out of wearing nappies, and the change when they used to like Thomas the Tank and now it’s Minecraft. The change from not being able to tie laces, to be able to tie them in the dark or with your eyes closed. We actually cope with many changes on a day to day basis and it is good to remind ourselves and each other about our history of coping with change.
The beliefs someone has about how important the changes are will affect their coping and, as we know, the things that are threatening to individuals vary from person to person.
When it comes to change, if someone thinks that the change will bring more negative consequences than positive one, then it’s clear that they may not be so happy or excited about it. We need to check on what people are predicting may happen and weigh up those chances realistically and keep them in perspective.
What is important to an individual child, and therefore, what might be most threatening, will likely depend on their age. A pre-school aged child will place more importance on themselves and their immediate care givers. They may be more possessive about objects. Primary aged children place more emphasis on friendships and school happenings. Moving schools can be a big change for a primary schooler and a change of classroom teacher can be a big thing. As children move into their teens, we see that peers and friendships start to be the factors that influence the changes that might be tolerated and the changes that may be harder to cope with. As young adults, more important change has to do with leaving home, finances, careers and perhaps even more “serious” relationships ( but, please don’t tell younger children that their relationships aren’t “serious”).
A child’s ability to cope will also be affected by their mental health and their mental health will be affected by their ability to cope. If your child is struggling with mental health issues, you may find that they become even more distressed about changed. Their already stretched bank of coping goes into over draft. Children who have a history of poor coping will likely need additional, and perhaps professional help, to assist them to manage big change.
Research psychologists have long been looking into the different ways that children cope in different scenarios and they have devised various tools and measures. Adults tend to have a wider array of coping that comes with having full independence, being more mobile, and having more say in their day.
Let’s face it, most children cannot rely on alcohol, shopping, over-working or affairs to get them by, but children are observing adult coping all of the time and they are taking all of this information in, even if they are not consciously aware of it.
According to researchers, children in “their middle years” tend to cope with many problems by using five main categories of coping:
- Support seeking – asking others for help and depending on the child’s age this could be asking parents, asking a teacher, asking friends, or asking any random stranger on social media.
- Humour – laughing or joking about the change
- Active coping – coming up with stregies to fix perceived problems and putting these strategies into action.
- Acceptance – acknowledging the change and getting on board with it
- Avoidance – trying not to think or have to deal with any aspect of the change whilst perhaps just hoping it goes away – a real “head in the sand” way of dealing with things
Gender seems to have an influence on coping styles with boys more likely to use humour and girls more likely to seek support. Children also tend to use humour when they think things are not very important and they will more likely seek support from others if they think it is an important problem.
Some interesting research has also discovered that a child’s coping style is affected by how their parents feel about the expression of emotion. Some parents believe that emotions are wrong or bad. Other parents might think it okay to express positive feelings, but they are less okay about encouraging children to express their negative or sadder feelings. Still other parents encourage healthy expression of all emotions and believe that all feelings are good– positive or negative. What the researchers found was that children who were raised by parents who believed that all emotions were good were more accepting. Their children more easily accepted changes. The children who had parents who did not believe that negative emotions could be good were less likely to seek support because they believed that their feeling should not be discussed or expressed.
Some parents are high in expressing negative emotions – these parents may tend to have more parent-centred rather than child-centred goals and they may be too stressed to teach their children about emotions.
If we want to maximise a child’s coping potential, we need to create healthy spaces where they can get a balanced view of the change and where they are able to talk about the bad feelings as well as the good.
So, some tips:
- Consider the impact the change will have on your child. I’m not saying “never change because it will upset your kids”. On the contrary, change brings opportunity, but it does also bring stress. Moving house, arranging to blend a family, and changing jobs are all very stressful tasks, but you need to manage your stress sufficiently to not skew your child’s view of the change. Remember, too much negatively expressed emotion about the change is your warning sign or your “note to self” that you need to do something more active to cope.
- In your list of busy jobs associated with the change, make time to check in with your children. Don’t expect that they won’t cope. Just enquire about what is going on for them in relation the change.
- Don’t assume that the bit about the change that is worrying you might be the same bit that is worrying them. Remember, the things that are important to us will vary, especially with age.
- Provide children with as much real information about the change as you can. Like adults, without sensible information, they will tend to worry about worse case scenarios if they don’t have the facts. You could even give them some things to research about the change. If they are moving towns, you might want to ask them to research where the local ballet schools or football clubs might be.
- Encourage your child to express their feelings about the change. If they express some negative feelings or some worries, don’t just try to override these with the positive feelings. You need to acknowledge (listen and feedback so they know you have heard them) their negative feelings. Encourage them to actively address any of their concerns if they can to minimise the impact and then consider the possible positives. It might be that they will miss their friends so don’t just override them and say that they’ll make new ones. Instead, listen, acknowledge the negative feelings, discuss ways they might say goodbye, ways they might stay in touch, and then, perhaps, the possibility of other friends.
- Establish a new, predictable routine as quickly as you can to help soothe anxiety.
- If your child relies heavily on social support, make sure they have some. If they have supportive friends, a family relative they lean on, or some other supportive adult, encourage them to spend some more time with them.
- If you suspect you child maybe relying too heavily on social media for support, check. Be sure they know the health places online that they can find help. Kidshelp line has a chat space.
If you are a psychologist or mental health professional working with a child about coping, you might consider the COPE a handy tool to add to your toolbox.