While the main subject matter in this article is how to help your child cope with moving anxiety, it is relevant for all changes your child might struggle with.
Changes are a major part of our lives; some even say that change is the only constant. But some changes are bigger and more significant than others, and as such, these changes should be addressed properly to create the minimal anxiety and foster maximal benefit. If you want to know how to help your child adjust to change, this article is for you.
Understand Change is Loss of Attachment
Most of the discussions revolving attachment concentrate on the main caregivers and their approach towards the child; however, human attachment is much wider: we attach to places, we attach to situations, we attach to who we are in these situations and places. We attach to knowing and expecting the known, to the ways we handle these expected, daily situations and the confidence and security it builds within us.
There are many adults who are uncomfortable with big changes, just imagine how hard it is on a toddler, whose entire perception of life is still very much limited to these things that she is about to lose. A big change, such as a relocation, moving apartments, moving up a class at daycare or at school might, but doesn’t have to be challenging.
Whenever a challenge is ahead, there is an opportunity to grow, learn and mature. Here is how to help your child adjust to change and when to start:
Expect a Change of Hearts
If you’ve been talking about it and building up the expectation and excitement towards to upcoming change, and your little one was all into it and everything seemed to be going just right, expect a switch. At some point sooner rather than later, the realization will linger in and fears will start crawling up and out. What until now was “wow we’re moving and I’ll get a new and cool room”! Can easily become “no, I’m not leaving, I’m staying in my room forever!”. Don’t consider this a defiant or rebellious in any way – your toddler is now understanding what is happening and what it means for him, and it means a great deal. This is a normal signal for the right time to start working and strengthening his attachment.
Many automatic responses sound something like “don’t worry, you’ll be just fine”, “don’t be silly, of course, you want to move!”, or “there’s no way back now”. These responses should be avoided because “you’ll be just fine” isn’t a concept a toddler can grasp, “of course you want to move” is a blunt disregard of his feelings, and “there’s nothing we can do about it” will just make your little one feel coerced into the new situation. Disregard and coercion are notions you want to avoid at all times.
With the more talkative toddlers, it is somewhat easier because we can ask them exactly what triggers them. With the younger ones we’ll need to take our best shot at it and guess, state the fact rather than ask a question. Validation is key. Toddlers (and adults, too) need to feel understood, they need to feel that they are known. Validating all her feelings will give your little one the strength to begin the actual coping process.
Address the Specific Loss of Attachment
Because this is what’s really happening.
You need to be in a known and homey environment, and you’re afraid you won’t like your new room? Do you need to keep close to your friends, and you’re anxious about not seeing them as often anymore? You need to know that you are loved and appreciated, and you worry about meeting the new teachers? You feel secure when you know exactly how you feel and at this point, you’re both excited and hesitant, and these feelings confuse you?
Notice how every question/statement addresses both the undermined need and the feeling it brings forth, this is the way to go. Don’t be afraid to use “big” words, to the contrary – this is a good opportunity to go deeper into your toddler’s heart, help her through the variety of feelings and getting to know herself better. The more you address her needs and feelings the easier it will be for her to break the situation down into smaller units that she can work with.
Provide Strategies to Meeting the Sabotaged Needs
This is a very important step because it creates continuity, and prevents the change from feeling so finite and straightforward by drawing an invisible yet tangible line between the current situation and the future. Knowing that our needs will be met in the new environment provides immense relief and allows us to relax and expect the change. This is even more accurate for toddlers whose scope of perception is limited to their needs.
Need in a known, homely environment: let him choose which items stay and which go. If he doesn’t want to let anything go, pack everything he wants. Imagine the new apartment or house and ask him what would he like to hang on the walls, if he wants a dinosaur poster – go get one. If you have pictures of the new apartment – that’s even better. Let him pack or take whichever part he chooses in the actual move. Take pictures of the current room and tell him he can always look at them and talk to you about how much he loved it.
Need to connect, stay in touch with friends: I’m not a huge fan of modernity upon all its characteristics, but technology is great. WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime are great ways to stay connected, even if some of these connections won’t really last a lifetime. Knowing that the option to talk and see each other exists is very reassuring. Show him how these apps work and call a few friends together. Tell him that friends will be able to visit and that he will be able to visit them (only if really possible, we don’t want to be making promises we can’t keep).
Need for autonomy: any change to our surrounding environment affects our freedom, independence, and spontaneity since it affects our ability to choose (how can I choose when I’m not aware of the new options?). Children feel this much stronger than adults because their need to control their immediate environment is very strong. Getting to know the new environment before the actual change is very important. Be it a new apartment, a new daycare, school or anything else. Walk around, use your imagination which is your strongest tool in this situation. Help your little one imagine what he will do in every room, what games he will play, where he would sleep and eat. “What would you like to eat here?” is a great question; by involving the senses, it brings the unknown back to the known.
The need for meaning, that includes expression, participation, hope, learning, contribution and many other aspects, is also somewhat undermined with a big change because changes affect who we are as we change from situation to situation, place to place. Again imagination is the best way to ease the mind; try listening more than you talk. When you feel you are about to say something, rephrase it to be a question and let him talk. This is a great opportunity to learn so much about the workings of the inner self.
Celebrate the Most Important Attachments
Attachments are our anchor, our compass in life; whenever we feel the loss of one attachment, strengthening the remaining attachment is more important than ever. If you’ve made it thus far reading this article, you are the little one’s main caregiver, probably mother or father. The attachment he has to you in the most important anchor in his life, every other placement, every other attachment begins with you. Throughout the previous and following steps, keep repeating that you are always there, that you love him to bits. That there is nothing he can do or say to make you love him more, and there’s nothing he can do or say to make you love him less. That the world might change, but you won’t; you’re staying and that for good. Invite him to depend on you in this challenging period, you won’t believe the difference it would make.
Strong and secure attachment to parents is everything one needs in life; especially a toddler. The below are specific examples of how to strengthen the six roots of attachment that are relevant at every age:
Proximity: employ your little one’s senses, and yours. Look him in his eyes, kiss him, hug him, be as close to him as you can.
Sameness: “jump” on whatever he says, saying you are the same. Does he want pasta? This is your favorite food too! Does he have a special book or character he likes? That’s your favorite one, too. You can even dress alike for a little while if it’s fun for the both of you.
Belonging: allow him, and even ask him to do simple chores for you and to slightly pamper you. Ask him for a glass of water and tell him how meaningful it was for you when he brought it. Incorporate him into every possible activity, making him feel a significant part of your life and of what you are going through.
Significance: make sure nothing he does goes unnoticed. To meet the need for significance means to address the deepest characteristics of your child; it won’t look the same with anyone else because we are all different. Let him know how significant he is and how significant everything he does is to you. Celebrate your child.
Love: this should be simple enough 🙂 but really, it isn’t. Love him. Don’t take away his attachment no matter what he does, and no matter how challenging he is at that moment.
Being known: if you really know your child, this will be easy. Make him his favorite foods, tell him his favorite jokes and stories, suggest to watch his favorite movie, and, generally – just be a step ahead of him, all (or at least most) of the time.
I hope these tips were helpful and provided insights on how to help your child adjust to upcoming changes to your little one’s life. Change happens every single day of our lives, and we react to it every moment. While this is a useful general outline, you are welcome to join my Facebook group and ask for specifics regarding your upcoming change.
Changes can be great fun, but it’s up to us to make them such 🙂