By Michael Reisman, M.Ed.
Director, HCYMCA Early Childhood Education
In on line research on the concept of “change,” I regularly see the verb “cope.” Certainly for those of us who don’t like change, cope is an appropriate term. However, that is an adultism. Achieving balance in our day to day lives is often about maintaining stability between the predictable/routine and the inevitable curve ball life throws. What happens when children hear and see us model change as a negative, yet unavoidable life event? Can we stop “coping” with change and learn to embrace it? Is it possible to pursue stability in our lives while growing more flexible and resilient?
It’s springtime at the Hunterdon County YMCA and change is everywhere around us, especially in nature. A popular spring science activity is raising a butterfly chrysalis. The kit comes with caterpillars, food, and safe containment facilities. When the caterpillars spin their cocoons, the children carefully transfer them from a jar to a friendly-looking netted enclosure. You know what happens next. The children also have a pretty good idea, but that doesn’t diminish the anticipation or magic when a winged creature finally emerges. I recently sat down with the Milford YMCA Pre-Kindergarteners to discuss metamorphosis, the word they learned to describe this process.
MR: So can someone tell me where the caterpillars went?
Jude: In the cocoon is a special liquid where it can grow new body parts.
Jacob: They are turning into butterflies!
MR: And does anyone remember the word for what is happening to the caterpillar?
MR: That’s right! Would anyone like to talk about what metamorphosis means to you?
Anthony: Starting all over again.
Abigail: It’s a big word for butterflies!
We sometimes underestimate the preschooler’s understanding of the world around us. The life cycle of the caterpillar in all its glorious biological detail may be new subject matter to them, but metamorphosis is not. It’s just a new word for a journey children travel regularly and capably, until they hear, “He/she isn’t good with change.”
Here are some tips on guiding children through change, be it good or bad, happy or sad:
- Allow Time to Grieve: Even if the change isn’t negative, it’s good to acknowledge that simply moving from one status quo to another inherently means the loss of the former. This can have an unexpected emotional impact on a child and it’s something to watch for. Acknowledge, validate, and help provide words to the feelings: “Daddy is disappointed we cannot live here anymore either, and I am sorry you are so sad about it.” You don’t need to bright-side it for children either. Although we desperately want children to feel comforted by us, what children really need is authentic empathy. The more you can put yourself in a child’s shoes, the easier it is to authentically sympathize and connect.
- Create Safety: Children feel safe through consistency and sameness. Even when things are changing around them, maintaining some semblance of a routine goes a long way. My son was three when Superstorm Sandy hit. The power went out at bedtime, and we maintained our routine, putting him to bed as usual. He was asleep when trees started coming down in the backyard. When we evacuated to the Red Cross shelter, he got his own cot, his blanket and pillow, and we revisited the bedtime routine with a book and a flashlight. Although we were worried, the little man did not have a traumatic experience, he had an adventure.
- Get the Children Involved: In the story above, we kept spirits up on the harrowing drive to the shelter by singing songs and looking for down trees and power lines. Once we got in the car, my son was my helper in spotting things in the road. This is an extreme example, but soliciting your child’s help with everyday tasks reinforces structure and self-reliance. Putting the dishes away, sweeping the floor, folding the laundry, and walking the dog are all simple tasks that empower children with a sense of responsibility and control in a world that may seem out of control.
- Be Patient and Compassionate: During times of change your child may show regressive or out-of-character behaviors which seem unrelated to the change they are facing. It may not even be obvious to you what change they are facing. Dr. Chinwe Williams writes in Helping Young Children Cope with Change, “The more consistent and patient you are in your approach, the better your child will adjust.” She goes on, “While the urge to shelter your child from pain will surface, focus on being present rather than protective.” She also recommends play as a means of relieving tension and stress. Try to let go of your grown-up pressure and anxiety and focus on playing with your child, allowing them to lead the play. You’ll be able to watch your child’s stress and anxiety float away, if only temporarily, as they experience a solace that only comes from authentic and present love.
Williams, D. C. (n.d.). How To Help Young Children Cope With Change. Retrieved from The Parent Cue