How to Raise a Change Hardy Child
by Paula Statman, M.S.S.W.
Do you have a child who hates change? It may seem that way. But more likely, you have a child with a low tolerance for it. If your child’s first response to change is apprehensiveness, reluctance or even dread, then she needs your help in becoming change hardy.
Perhaps your child has little interest in anything you present as “better” or “different” and clings to things that are tried and true. Or he prefers repetition to new adventures and more than anything, just wants things to stay the same. If you are a parent with a strong preference for stimulation or variety, you may wonder how your child can be so content with such a seemingly monotonous existence. You may get exasperated and think “What is the big deal with change?!”
Some of what you are seeing is your child’s true nature or temperament. There are many children who prefer structure, security, and sameness over new experiences. If this describes your child, your challenge will be to learn about your child’s temperament and teach him some skills that will help him participate fully in life.
For starters, remember that all children are attracted to change to varying degrees. Just by virtue of being human, they are compelled to seek changes so that they can fully develop. (Without this innate drive, toddlers would never learn to walk!) As an illustration, take two children learning to ride a bicycle. One enjoys change and the other does not. The child who doesn’t enjoy change insists that the parent hold on to the seat of the bicycle for several practice sessions. The child who relishes the opportunity to master something new tells the parent to let go after 50 feet. The point is that both children graduate from training wheels to two-wheels in their own time and in their own style. Both are compelled to change.
Does your child have trouble making transitions? When children are young they often fuss and protest when required to transition from one activity to the next. This kind of resistance to change is more developmental than temperamental. In most cases, it can be handled by managing your child’s expectations and helping him gradually bring the activity to a close.
Let’s say your 5 year old has been happily building sand castles on the beach all day. Now as the sun sets, there is a chill in the air and it’s time to leave. When he protests about this perfect day coming to an end, he is doing what most children do at this age: letting you know that your world of time and tasks is unappealing compared to his magical and fantastic one. In this case, preparing him in advance for the departure time and building in time to allow his requests for “just 5 more minutes” should work well.
As your child gets older and problem solving skills develop, you can employ them to balance fear with logic and to counter imagined outcomes with more likely ones. Let’s say your 10-year-old daughter will try new things, but only when there is added security built in to the process. You might encourage her to develop contingency plans, which create a mental safety net in her mind. Contingency planning is also a skill she can use throughout her life. A good first question to ask is, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then, when she gives you an answer, no matter how unlikely it is, calmly ask, “How could you deal with that?” If she doesn’t have an answer, suggest one. Continue the conversation until she has exhausted all her worst case scenarios. Your role is to be a good listener and guide her thinking. You want her to feel more capable of handling real or imagined problems that get in the way of her making positive changes.
Sometimes a change-resistant child is good at planning but can’t take action without parental help. What may look like laziness or procrastination on the surface may instead be an opportunity for you to step in and help him take the next step. For example, he may insist that he should make “just one more” back up plan before he proceeds. You must teach him that one or two back up plans is enough to support his success and that it is fine to move forward even if he feels a little afraid. Reassure him that everyone feels that way when they are taking a risk or making an important change. Then, if possible, support him by being there to offer encouragement and praise when he takes the next step.
All children need our help making changes at least once in awhile, some more often than that. Whether the obstacles that get in their way are developmental, situational or temperamental, we play an important role in helping our children embrace, rather than resist, what is ahead of them.