If your child is sensitive to changes in plans or situations, you might find yourself walking on eggshells trying to prevent things from going off course or becoming anxious that your child will struggle when an inevitable change takes place.
This is a stressful pattern for you and your child since the world is generally unpredictable. Teachers and coaches make decisions that you have little control over, friends and peers have opinions and preferences that fluctuate, and even simple things like the weather can throw a wrench in plans.
If you find yourself dreading the unknown or working overtime to compensate for changes because you feel your child won’t be able to cope, here are 5 things to keep in mind to get things back on track:
1. Avoid absolutes
Kids who like predictability or who are sensitive to change will often seek out reassurance and try to lock you into a response or commitment. It’s hard not to promise or say that something different will never happen, especially when you know those small words may buy you a few minutes of peace and calm. But, because there has to be a but, using absolutes makes it harder for your child (and, by proxy you) to cope when things do change.
Here’s your out. Instead of saying, “I promise,” try, “I know it would feel great if I promised, but I can’t. I can tell you that the plans are set for right now, but if something changes I’ll let you know and we will deal with it.”
2. Support but don’t rescue
When faced with change, your child may feel angry, anxious, or some other form of distress, and probably most of all he or she feels out of control. There’s no way for you to fix this situation, and even if there were, doing so means your child is reliant on you for emotional protection. In the long run, this is a huge disadvantage because the real world is far more unforgiving than whatever challenge your child is facing today and you won’t always be there to jump in and save the day.
So, next time you feel the urge to rescue your child, try to pull back and play the role of supporter. This means you can offer a few words of empathy and validation (“I know this is hard” or “This is tough”) and wait until your child is calm enough to have a conversation or brainstorm possible ways to move forward.
3. Instill resilience
When kids struggle to cope with and accept change, it’s easy for them to feel overly sensitive and a bit incapable of dealing with things. Here, it’s important to focus on when your child is able to pull through and consistently send the message, “I know you can handle this.” Many parents say it seems disingenuous to say this to a child, especially if you are 100% certain he or she is about to have a melt-down because a play-date was just cancelled or dinner plans changed. I hear you, but if we really look at the statement, “I know you can handle this,” you’re not lying.
Even if it’s not pretty, your child handles changes and setbacks. So, you’re not being dishonest, you’re just drawing attention to the fact that ultimately, you child will get through the temporary distress of change and walk away remembering that you said he or she could handle it. Those words are far more productive than your child reflecting back on statements like, “You’re overreacting again!” or, “You always freak out for no reason!” You want more “handling” of things, so focus on that to install resilience.
4. Accept that your child may struggle (and know it’s worth it)
It’s hard to see your child struggle. Emotionally, it’s heart-breaking to watch your son or daughter struggle when you want nothing more than for him or her to be happy and comfortable. Practically, it can be stressful and overwhelming to have a child or teen who is throwing the equivalent of a temper tantrum due to a change in plans or new scenario that was not expected.
Reacting emotionally will add fuel to the fire and help the situation escalate until someone winds up in tears or says something hurtful and regretful. The best way to make sure that person is not you is to expect a big, emotional reaction and remind yourself that it’s ok for your child to be struggling. It won’t last forever.
5. Practice flexibility
The best way to get better at dealing with change is to practice flexibility…sort of like mental and emotional yoga. Choose a calm time to start, because you know that trying anything new in a moment (or hour) when your child is already upset won’t be productive. For younger kids and tweens, you can do flexibility exercises that are game-like. My favorite is “10 ways to use a _____,” filling in the blank with common objects like an orange, pencil, or cup of water.
For older kids and teens, you can take a different approach by thinking of a situation (walking into a surprise party, getting an F on a test, or being left out of a social event) and then predicting how different people might react. You can pull from real life but have fun by including characters from books, movies, and even pop culture.