Understanding kids that struggle with change

Aug 04, 2023
Understanding kids that struggle with change

Do you have a child that struggles with new situations or change? While some kids embrace new situations and look forward to them with excitement, others can resist change, and get testy and anxious as upcoming changes get closer.  Every child is wired differently, and it’s not uncommon to have one child breeze through new situations while the other struggles.  

I say this from personal experience as I have one of each myself, and preparing for back to school was consistently a rough time of year for us.  If you can relate please know that you’re not alone.  The annual change of classrooms, new teachers, or looming unknown of a completely new experience can be a particularly challenging time for kids that struggle with change.   

Kids that struggle with change tend to struggle with managing big feelings in general.   They have a harder time regulating their emotions and nervous system.  They rely on things being predictable to generate a feeling of safety which calms down their nervous system — and new situations and change aren’t predictable.  For kids that have a harder time regulating their emotions, change stresses their nervous system and has them reacting and behaving irrationally.  

As a parent, when you struggle to manage your child’s irrational reactions and behavior during times of change it can be very easy to think of your differently wired child as “difficult”.  Although it’s completely normal and understandable that you might think this way, it can have a couple unintentional ramifications. 

One of the things that can help calm a child’s nervous system is connection.  Unfortunately, their irrational behavior and over the top reactions can be extremely frustrating.  When we’re frustrated and thinking of them as “difficult”, the last thing we feel like doing is emotionally connecting with them.  

When we think of our kids as “difficult”, we might also unintentionally convey that to them and it can affect their self-esteem.  We can unknowingly treat them differently than another sibling that is more flexible.  Over time, kids can start to think of themselves that way and take on the identity of being “difficult”.

As a parent, what can we do to manage our own thoughts and reactions so we can better support a child that has over the top reactions and irrational behavior around impending changes?

First, come up with a mantra that you can repeat to yourself at difficult times.  One that I recommend often is Dr. Ross Greene’s “He would if He could”.  Most children don’t like feeling out of control.  They often feel quite remorseful after an episode, which can compound self-esteem issues.  Do your best to remember that they’re not behaving that way on purpose, and they would control themselves if they could.

Second, review the times and situations that can set off your child, and decide how you want to be thinking in those situations in advance.  We consistently tend to think the same thoughts in the same situations — so if you want to have a different thought like he would if he could — I highly recommend that you identify when you want to be thinking those thoughts ahead of time so you are more likely to remember and less likely to default to your old thought patterns.

Third, remember to BREATHE.  Our breath is the single most powerful tool we have to calm down our nervous system in any single moment.  It can help you stay calm when your child is not, and if you audibly take deep and exaggerated breaths your child is more likely to do the same which can help them calm too.

Finally, whenever you see thoughts pop up where your brain is telling you that your child is “difficult”, shut them down.  Our brain offers us thoughts all the time, but we don’t have to accept or believe them.  Instead, consider reminding yourself that’s an old thought that you now know isn’t true, and tell yourself he’s a good kid just having a tough time because he’s wired differently. 

If you want to add more tools to your parenting toolbox and learn how to support your child through change and going back to school, I can help!  This month in the Confident Parenting Club we are doing a deep dive into how to support and prepare kids (and yourself) for upcoming changes and going back to school!  Click here to check out the Club, and use coupon code CHANGE to get over 25% off when you join.

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