Change is incredibly difficult for children, and if that change is related to who is taking care of them all day long, it’s exponentially more difficult. We spoke with clinical psychologist, Dr. Sarah Bren, to share her tips on how to make change more manageable in your family, through support and open communication.
Change is hard for kids for a number of reasons, here are the major ones:
- Change shakes things up, and adds an element of unpredictability and newness. Unfortunately this is also the exact recipe for anxiety.
- Change requires our brains to be able to shift sets, which is a skill housed in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of our brain to develop (it’s finally fully functioning in young adulthood), and for young children it is very hard for them to access and engage this part of their brain. It is not impossible, but it requires a very regulated nervous system and a lot of environmental support in the moment.
- Children are hardwired to seek proximity and comfort from their caregivers. This means that they are highly attuned to their environment and the adults in their lives, and they can not only sense the teeny-tiniest change in their surroundings, but they can also sense the teeny-tiniest change in the emotions and stress levels of their grownups. So when we are stressing about switching up the routine, introducing a new nanny, or transitioning our kids to daycare, they feel it. And if we aren’t putting words to those feelings for them, they are filling in the blanks with what limited resources they have which can also lead to more anxiety.
When it comes to helping a child prepare for transitions of any kind, the first step is to talk about it as much as possible so they can prepare and process. Help them to imagine whatever is about to change so they can begin to feel some sense of control and agency. Before a new nanny comes to the house, or before they start at a new daycare, begin talking to them about what will happen, what it will look like, what will change, what will stay the same, etc. Help them to imagine what kinds of feelings they might have, who they will see, what they will do. It’s almost as though we want to help them to create an entire story, complete with pictures, in their mind. The more details the better! And don't be afraid to do this a lot—repetition is very helpful for kids.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “that’s fine for an older toddler, but what about my younger toddler or baby who is not yet verbal?” And to that I would say, talk about it all anyway. This can be a hard point to sell to everyone, but I genuinely believe that even our youngest babies benefit from being informed about what is happening to them and what they can expect. While they might not understand the actual words, they do still understand tone, affect, and body language.
Validate and Hold Space
Another important piece is to allow space for ALL the feelings your child might be having in response to this new change. It might feel tempting to move them out of negative feelings and towards more positive feelings, but if they’re expressing sadness or fear, try to validate those emotions and not try to convince them out of them or distract from them.
It’s also possible to help them recognize that they are likely having a wide range of feelings. This might look like “I know there are parts of you that don’t want to go back to daycare, and that you feel sad about leaving mom and dad. I also know there are parts of you that feel excited to play with your friends and parts of you that love your teachers too. It’s OK to feel all kinds of different things.” Note: if they’re sad in that particular moment, just validate the sadness. The conversation about all the emotions should happen later when they’re calm and you’re just talking.
Children’s brains take longer to process information than adult brains do, so as a general rule of thumb, it is a good idea to slow everything down just a bit whenever you are engaging with a child. Talk more slowly, move more slowly, and transition more slowly. It is okay if a transition to a new form of childcare takes a few weeks to get to full steam. If we can have an attuned, intentional, and measured introduction to this change, we are likely going to see a return on that initial investment of time up front.
Supplement with Authentic Control
To make up for the inevitable loss of control that comes with changing a big part of a child’s routine, we want to provide a lot of opportunities for them to find other ways to feel in control. One really helpful strategy for this is offering a lot of Authentic Choices--preset choices they can pick from that you are comfortable following through on whatever they decide. This might look like, “Do you want peas or carrots with your chicken?” “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the yellow one?” These are low stakes choices, presented often, which allow a child to experience a legitimate sense of agency and authentic control over aspects of their day to day.
A Note on Guilt:
An article on transitioning our children out of our care and into the care of a nanny or daycare could not possibly be complete if it did not address the dreaded G-word: GUILT. As a parent, I know you are no stranger to guilt, but there is a special set of guilty thoughts reserved just for when we consciously make decisions that physically separate us from our children.
But the thing I really want to emphasize is that while these guilty thoughts and feelings make a lot of sense, they do not have to be the only narrative you are attending to. It is okay to say, “sharing my caregiving responsibilities with someone else makes me feel guilty, I’m literally hardwired to feel that way and I know that I am a good parent and that asking for and accepting help does not alter that in any way.”
Especially now, in this time of upheaval, uncertainty, and fear, it is exceptionally difficult to make the choice to bring a person into your home to help care for your child or to send your child out to a place of care. And in the same way that we are striving to validate and hold space for our children’s discomfort and pain, it’s so important for us to validate for ourselves that it is a hard, maybe even painful choice, but that it is also okay to make it.
You are a good parent. You are doing a good job.
--Sarah Bren, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in psychodynamic and relationship-based approaches to working with young adults, adults, parents, and families. She has a particular interest in teaching parents, caregivers, and childcare organizations about how respectful parenting principles can improve the quality of their relationships with their loved ones and, by extension, help the children in their lives become more authentic, confident, independent, and kind. Dr. Bren sees clients in her private practice in Pelham, NY and at the group practice Octave Health in Midtown Manhattan. She is currently providing care to all of her clients virtually. Connect with her through her website or Instagram, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.