All of our lives are hectic – full of demands that create the need for quick assessment of complex issues and equally swift changes in direction. Sometimes the changes are physical, sometimes mental and other times emotional. Sometimes the changes are something that we were anticipating and other times we are caught completely by surprise. In either set of circumstances, as adults, we have a variety of tools available to cope with change. We have the ability to recognize that we have successfully survived previous changes and transitions and we have the confidence in our own skills to do so again. Children do not have this experience and confidence yet, so an important part of positive parenting is to help our children gradually develop the skills to cope with change and transition.
Even when our coping skills are challenged by excessive amounts of change and stress, we know or can learn how to reach out to others for help. We can learn ways to reduce and relieve our stress even if those methods are temporary like taking a nap or having lunch with a friend. What we may not think about is the complexity of the process involved in our development of these coping skills. And we may underestimate the impact of even a seemingly small change of routine for our children.
For anyone, change is something that disrupts our routine. And a predictable routine helps to protect and preserve our sense of safety, security, confidence, and competence. This is important in positive parenting. The type of change and our own ability to cope with it are factors that determine how disrupted our sense of routine becomes. And those factors also affect our ability to protect our children from unnecessary disruptions.
Contrast these two events. We wake up in the morning to discover that we forgot to set the timer on our coffee pot, or slow cooker oatmeal. We look at our watch and figure out that we may not have time to adjust our schedule. How are we affected? What do we do? How do we manage the situation? Let’s say that same evening we come home after work to find that the locks on our home have been changed and a process server is there to serve us with divorce papers. Now how do we behave?
Clearly not all marriages end in divorce, but 60% do in California. Many families will experience the serious illness of a parent or a child, like a cancer diagnosis. 1 in 3 adults will experience a bout of clinical depression sometime in their life. And all of us will lose a loved one to death at some point.
Protecting quiet routines on a daily basis should be a high priority for parents. Both those that are for the soothing and comfort of the adult, as well as those that are for the children. It is these quiet, dependable routines that sooth and reassure us and our children through the ups and downs of life whether big or small. Think about the quiet routines that sooth and reassure you on a daily basis. Make a list. Then do the same with your children.
If your child is too young to speak, watch and listen, and notice the rhythm of their day. Become conscious of the quiet routines that create a sense of security and safety in both of your lives and then honor them. This is easy to do when life flows predictably. This is the time for awareness and learning about the quiet routines that are protective and restorative, so that you are prepared to protect them when the very real anxieties of big changes and difficult transitions are a part of your daily life once again.
A daily shared meal or a bedtime story or a walk around the park or neighborhood are examples of quiet routines that can be preserved through all states of family life, if a grownup is paying attention. Remember that children’s ways of coping with change are very different from adults. In general, the younger the child, the smaller his or her world in terms of the daily landmarks they use to orient themselves and feel safe and secure.
You may be feeling a tremendous sense of disruption and upheaval because of a change in your family life and the urge to tell your child “the truth.” But be cautious about communicating to your child when you are in an anxious, shocked, and highly emotional state.
BREATHE. HOLD. EXHALE. HOLD. REPEAT.
Practice self-restraint and check first to see how your child is actually doing. Stop, look, and listen are steps from our own childhoods that have much to offer us at a time of transition. Remember that your child does not experience or think about the world in the same way you do, so don’t assume that because you feel overwhelmed your child will. Children tend to very easily absorb the feelings of the parent so make sure that you allow your child to have his or her own experience.