We each have different temperaments, social and emotional skills and life experiences. These differences all influence our reaction to change or transition, and will mean that no two children will respond in the same way to a change or transition. The same child at different times may also respond in different ways.
Change opens the door to many different possible emotions, from fear and sadness to excitement and anticipation. A child’s ability to understand what they are feeling, name their feelings and express them constructively will play a large role in how they cope with change. These are skills which develop with age, exposure to different situations, guidance from adults and practice. For example, children with early-developing social and emotional skills may only be able to recognise one emotion within themselves at a time, whereas children with more developed skills might recognise that they can feel both sad and excited at the same time.
Age and stage of development plays a direct role in the level of emotional skills a child has to manage change. With age and opportunities to experience children’s responses to change will become more adaptive and sophisticated. However, social and emotional skills not only develop with age but also with teaching and opportunities to practice skills when responding to difficulties. Children will model their reactions to change on their family’s responses, and their level of self-awareness and insight will also be a result of how their family has helped them make sense of their emotions. Thus, families play an important role in teaching children effective coping strategies for change. Age-appropriate responses can be modelled and taught by adults and then internalised by children, giving them a framework for managing change effectively in the future.
How children respond to change is also influenced by their temperament. Temperament encompasses a child’s personality, likes and dislikes and how they respond to different situations. A child who is shy and afraid of new situations will obviously respond very differently to a child who is outgoing and enjoys new experiences. This will then influence how families need to help children to manage change.
Commonly, children will be worried about at least some elements of a change. However, expression of that worry might be different in different children. Some children might express their worry by becoming withdrawn and quiet. Others might become angry more easily than normal, or start to misbehave. It’s important to understand that there’s no one ‘right’ way to express worry in times of change. A quiet child might look like they are coping on the surface, but a few gentle enquiries might find a torrent of emotion underneath. A child who gets angry about something unrelated to the change might need some help to identify what’s really worrying them.
Over time children’s responses to managing change will vary as their social and emotional competence develops. As children grow, their level of awareness and insight of situations develops and they move from concrete thinking patterns to more abstract reasoning. This may mean their responses to change will become more intense as their knowledge and awareness of situations becomes more in-depth.
Families can support children in how they cope with change, laying the foundation for the development of effective coping strategies in managing change in the future. Read more about how to empower children to manage change and transition.