Change is inevitable. Even if we try to avoid it, it still happens (such as the worldwide pandemic we’re currently wrestling with).
Even small transitions can be difficult for little ones (like having to stop playing to take a bath). So big changes, like a parent going back to work, moving to new home, or divorce can turn their tiny world upside-down. Toddlers depend on familiarity in their routines and environment, so when a major shift happens it’s important to understand how it affects them, and how you can support them through it.
Why Change is Difficult for Toddlers
It’s easy to imagine why change is so hard for toddlers: They lack both the understanding of why a change happens, and how to cope with the emotions that come with it. More importantly, they’re still developing a sense of time, so it’s difficult for them to plan for what comes next. They’re living in the moment, so if you tell them, “We’re going on a trip tomorrow,” you’ll likely have to remind them again in the morning because they’re still learning what “tomorrow” really means.
Children have different temperaments, too, which can contribute to how well they handle change. For instance, toddlers who are slow-to-warm-up to new people and places may need more support throughout a transition.
Tips for Guiding a Toddler Through Change
Here are some ways to help your little one cope during times of change:
Create safety through consistency.
Dr. Chinwe Williams, a licensed counselor from Parent Cue says, “If I’ve learned anything in my clinical experience working with youth, it is this: Children can be frequently told they are safe, and may even know they are safe, but they do not necessarily feel safe. As most parenting experts will attest, children need security, consistency, and stability. At first glance, these principles may appear to be quite oxymoronic when associated with the storms of life. However, depending on the age, there are ways to provide children with security in transition.” She goes on to explain that parents and caregivers can create safety through consistency by holding onto small but significant actions in their routines. For example, if you are away from your home for an extended time, continue to read their favorite book at bedtime. Stick to your daily walks to the park or commit to family dinners whenever possible. In times of change, even seemingly small acts of consistency can be surprisingly helpful for your child.
Ask for their help.
Overall, little ones want to be helpful, even though it may not always seem that way! Giving them opportunities to be involved in the transition can provide a boost of confidence in uncertain times. It can be a simple chore, like putting toys into boxes to prepare for a move. Or, it can be in the form of support when making decisions (“Mommy’s going back to work tomorrow! We need to pick the perfect shoes for my first day. Should I wear the red or the brown shoes?”). Involving them in easy tasks or decisions provides a healthy distraction from the current transition and makes them feel important.
We might feel that if a change is too complicated for a toddler to understand, we don’t have to tell them about it. While kids are often resilient and adaptable creatures, suddenly sneaking back to work, moving to a different home, or surprising them with a new school can feel confusing and upsetting. It’s helpful to offer gentle warnings that change is coming. As the transition is approaching, remind them that “in two more days, you’ll see your new school” or “next week we’ll see our new home!” It’s critical for toddlers to be able to trust the grownups in their lives, so honesty is key. Offer plenty of reassurance. A great tool for exploring upcoming changes with your child is books! Chances are, whatever change you’re facing, there’s a book for toddlers about it!
Be patient and understanding.
Some toddlers will be very emotional during times of big change, and might even show signs of regression in behavior, sleep, or potty training. Even though these regressions add more stress to an already stressful time, little ones are more likely to overcome steps backwards when parents and caregivers respond with patience and understanding. This not only helps them feel more secure; when they see you modeling self-regulation, it can help them feel regulated, too.
Even if they’re not emotional, they still need support.
While some little ones’ behavior lets you know, loud and clear, that they’re struggling with change, others’ reactions may be less obvious. Even if your little one seems excited about starting a new daycare or meeting a new babysitter, take time anyway to talk to them about and prepare them for it.
As we said at the beginning, change is inevitable! Teaching our little ones to be flexible and adapt to new situations are essential life skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.