We are a family of horse lovers. My daughter recently acquired a new mare. She is a young horse, raised by a single family and loved by them her whole life thus far. She is well-trained, experienced in everything we would want, and will make a great kid’s horse. Well, this beauty came to us, and you can tell she is out of her element. She is nervous, listening to everything in her new surroundings. She doesn’t want anything to do with the dogs or the machinery or even with the other horses we have; things she is all very well accustomed to from her previous home.
I read somewhere that it can take a horse up to a year to adjust to a new home. This transition can take a lot of time for them to really feel “at home” in their new environment.
And that made me think about our children, especially during this time of year when they are going into a new school environment.
Transitions take time, a lot more time than we adults think it does. There is a new routine, new surroundings, new “normal” everyday things that we take for granted but have shifted for them.
This could be applied to school, but also to other major life events for children as well. I remember when my youngest was 6 months old and my 4-year-old lay in bed next to me as I was putting her to sleep and she tearfully said, “I miss you, Mama.” And in that moment, it hit me, she still hadn’t truly adjusted to having this new baby in the house. She had had me for four years, all to herself, and now, even though in my mind a lot of time had passed, to her, this baby was still new, and she was robbing her of precious time with her Mama.
Big life changes can be hard for children to cope with. The good news is that when we support them through those transitions in a nurturing manner, it helps to build their resilience. That resilience will help them cope with struggles that they will inevitably face in the future.
Life events for children may look like — moving, going to a new school or having a new teacher, adding a sibling to the family, losing a relative or pet, separation and divorce, marriage and step-relationships, starting a new activity, or even having to change to a new routine from what they have been used to.
These life changes can be hard to cope with and just because a child is older does not necessarily make it any easier to deal with. Often, we think that because they are older, they should be better able to cope, but that isn’t always the case. Many factors contribute to how well a child handles change.
What we do know is that there are a few things we as parents can do to help our children cope with major transitions.
1. Prepare them in advance. Whenever possible we want to let our children know that the change is coming and what it might look and feel like when it happens. One conversation is not enough. This should be an ongoing discussion (not long and drawn out, but something short that we revisit frequently).
2. Listen to their concerns. Take the time to truly listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings about the change. Allow them to ask questions and if they are struggling, help them name what they are feeling (worried, scared, sad, jealous, etc.)
3. Validate their feelings. It is important that we do not brush off how our children are feeling. It can sometimes be tempting to say, “You’ll be fine,” often because we truly believe that. Our children need to hear us say that we hear them, understand them, and that whatever they are feeling is acceptable and normal, AND we will help them get through it.
4. Provide connection. The relationship with you is one of the most important factors in building resilience. Especially during a major change, children need to know that you are there and consistently provide nurturing care. It helps them feel safe and secure amidst the chaos and challenges they may be facing with the transition.
5. Talk about other changes that they have coped with in the past. A great way to cope with a current challenge is to talk about challenges that they have faced in the past and successfully coped with. Storytelling is a great way to help children process the feelings that they are experiencing and when we can tell the story of how they succeeded in the past, it can help boost their confidence.
6. Give it time. Our children are all unique and there is no set time that it should take for them to adjust to the change that just happened. For some children, it will be days, and for others, it might take months or even a year. That’s okay. Be patient, be nonjudgmental, be understanding, and be a source of support and nurturance.
If you feel like your child is really struggling and needs more support, reach out to others who can be a source of support for both of you. That may be family or friends, community support programs, a therapist or parenting coach, teachers, school counselors, church members, etc. Remember that you having support during a transition is just as important as your child having support. It is also great role modeling for them to see that you reach out for help and support when it’s needed as well.