help4yourfamily

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Preparing Children for Major Transitions

Summer Camp 2010

Summer Camp 2010 (Photo credit: Olds College)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

It’s summer.  Anyone with a child in school recently has, or is about to experience a major transition from having the school routine schedule to a summer schedule.  Perhaps your children have camps, vacations, different childcare arrangements, or long stretches of time at home, or, if you are like my family, a combination of all of those depending upon the week.  Even though summer can be a time of excitement and activities that children love, remember, even something exciting can be stressful.  To illustrate this, think about the last time you went on vacation.  Did you experience any stress before you went away?  Did you worry you were going to forget to pack something?  Did you have to work to make sure you stayed in budget or planned accordingly for activities vs. rest?

Even though your child does not necessarily have the same stressors you do, they have others.  Their stressors may include concerns like whether any other kids they meet on the trip or at camp might like them, whether this is going to be a fun place to go or not, whether the rules will be the same or different for them than what they are used to, whether they will have the food they like to eat on the trip, and what to expect next.

The adopted children I see can often have additional concerns such as whether someone from their birth family might spot them (I have heard this even from children adopted at birth), whether people in public will spot their family and ask why they look different or whether their family will be accepted.  They may worry if they are going to see relatives that they feel treat them differently from children born biologically into the family, or that their adoptive family is planning on leaving them in the new location.  Many of the children I see have the additional worry about embarrassing themselves by wetting the bed or their pants during the day if that has been a problem for them.

So, how can we prepare children for all of these transitions?  Here are a few tips to get you started.  The first few are for everyone, then I have a few special tips just for people with children with attachment issues.  Remember, every child is different.  That is why I am giving you several suggestions.  I encourage you to use those that feel right for you and your child.

1.  Prepare your child by telling them in a matter of fact way about what to expect.  For example: “Remember, you are going to camp tomorrow, I don’t know if you will know any of the kids there but I do know Ms. Suzie from last year will be there again.  I’m going to pack you an apple and some cereal in your lunch instead of a peanut butter sandwich because the camp does not allow peanuts in your lunch.”  Or, “We are going to Grandma’s.  Remember, we went there last year and you slept in the same room with your cousin Joey.  Sometimes you got to go to bed later and one night Aunt Cindy is going to watch you while Mom and Dad go out.  If two adults tell you two different things to do, I want you to come ask me if you are confused.  If I’m not there, I will always let you know who is in charge.”  You may need to break this information up into several conversations if you have a child that has difficulty taking in too much information at once.  I also like to ask children what they heard me say so I can hear them say it back and confirm that they heard what I think I said so I know if they got it.

2.  Always let children know who is in charge if you are not with them.  Meet the camp counselor, introduce your child to them and point out that that person is in charge.  “She’s in charge of this camp and I expect you to listen to her.”  Or, “We are going out and you are staying with Nana and Pop, I expect you to listen to both of them.”

A side note about tone here: I am not suggesting any kind of accusatory tone.  I always recommend a matter of fact, friendly tone that takes into account that our children are little humans with feelings.  I could see the above statement being said in an accusatory way and I hope you will refrain from that as much as possible.  If you have a child that has attention or attachment issues making it possible that they were not hearing you, or that they will pretend they did not hear you later, you can have them repeat it back.  Make it a game: You: Who’s in charge?  Child: Ms. Jenny’s in charge.

3.  Talk to your child about any transitions before they happen a few times so you can figure out if your child has questions that are causing anxiety so that you can get answers for them.  It is difficult to predict the ways in which children will formulate stories to fill in the gaps in their understanding.

When I was around 13 and my youngest sister was five, my family moved to a house about five miles away from the home we were living in.  I remember one night at dinner, we were talking about the move and someone asked my sister if she was excited to be moving.  She hesitated and got a little teary, then blurted out, “Yes!  But, I’m going to miss you guys!”  Remember, even if your child has made this transition before, it may only be their second or third time doing it.

A year in the eyes of a child is infinitely longer than a year in the eyes of an adult.  For a 33-year-old, a year is 1/33rd of their lives, for a four-year old, a year is 1/4 of their lives.  That’s a big difference.  A lot happens in the year of a child, and going somewhere, like a camp or vacation, where they have not gone for a year still qualifies as a major transition in their eyes.

4.  While you are making sure that you are talking about the upcoming transition some, I want to caution you to refrain from talking about it too much.

Recently my family and I went for a vacation weekend to a child friendly hotel/amusement park.  While we were there, my husband and I walked through the lobby where there was a show going on.  The show had animatronic characters singing a song.  I can only assume the song was called “There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of.”  I assume that was the title of the song because the characters sang that line at least twenty times in the short time we were walking through the lobby.  I turned to my husband and remarked that while I was not scared before, I was thinking I might need to be scared now!  After all, why are they so adamant about telling me that there is nothing to be afraid of unless there is, in fact, something that might be kind of scary?

My point is, I have seen many parents who are worried about their child’s response to something new, prepare their child by talking about it endlessly.  A child who might not otherwise have been so worried, can then become fearful and put more energy and focus more anxiety on this thing Mom and Dad seem to be so worried about…it must be big.  Discussions about a transition need not be endless, just check-in, answer questions gently and matter-of-factly, and refrain from shaming or embarrassing children for asking what you think is a silly question.

I have two additional tip for parents with attachment disturbed children:

1.  Attachment disordered children still need safety and predictability, however, be mindful that they can often find ways to mess up vacations for themselves and put extra strain on the family by acting out when they are anxious.  Often a child worries they will mess up a vacation until they torture themselves internally about it so much that they go ahead and get in trouble just to get it over with.  Depending on your child, you may want to keep some things about a vacation private until just before they happen and to keep your plans flexible.  For example, say you have decided to go to a water park for one day during the vacation.  If possible, give yourself a window of days and times to go.  That way if your child is having a rough day you can just go the next day so they do not feel you are taking it away because they ruined things.  Then, on the day you do go, you can tell your child that morning or even on the way there and field questions as they come.  Children with attachment issues can get overly anxious and have temper tantrums as their anxiety builds and giving them a few surprises can actually save them from this anxiety in the long run.  Reserve this for things you are all doing together, do not surprise your child by telling them you are leaving them with someone else, even someone else they like.

2.  Be mindful that as you tell a child your expectations, you are not also handing them “the keys to the kingdom” as one of my colleagues likes to say.  What she means by this is that attachment disordered children are interested in what makes you the most upset so that they may use that against you whenever they are feeling anxious, insecure or fearful.  Be careful that when you are telling them your expectations as detailed in the suggestions mentioned earlier that you are not also highlighting the things that will annoy you the most if they do them.  “We are going to grandma’s and she is making cookies.  You may have two.  I expect you to use your manners.  If there is something you would like to have, please let me know so I can tell you if it is okay,” is very different from, “We are going to Grandma’s house.  No stealing, no lying.”  The first example encourages children to meet expectations, the second informs the children of the ways they can disappoint themselves yet again.

For all children, stating what you do want is always preferable to stating what you don’t want.  If I told you not to look at the title of this post, what is the first thing you think about doing?  Reading the title of course!  However, if I said to you that I hope you keep reading this post to the end, where is your attention?  Children are the same way.  High energy children, and attachment disturbed children are like this more than others and if you say, “Don’t steal,” their little minds say over and over, “Don’t steal.  Don’t steal.  Don’t steal.” until they have thought it so hard they find a chocolate bar in their pocket that they really may not have meant to have there.  If you give a child another thought such as, “Ask me if you want something,” and they say this over and over in their heads, even if it does not always work out, it plants a better seed in a child’s mind.  The more seeds like that you plant, the more likely they are to take root.

What are some transitions your children are going through?  Are there other ways you help your child with major transitions?

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June 21, 2012 - Posted by | attachment disorder, child development, help for parents, Parenting | , , , , , , ,

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