Sunday, September 30, 2012

Change Is Inevitable: How Stories Can Help Children Handle It

Change. Most people don't like it much. 
I have a confession: when things don't go the way I expect them to go, I kind of freak out. I get stressed, I can get angry, I think my brain even malfunctions a bit. It's not a pretty sight. When something really huge unexpectedly happens - like when my first marriage ended - I cope much better than I do with the little, every day kind of changes. I go into battle mode with the big stuff and I get it handled. But the little things, like when plans have to change unexpectedly, really throw me for a loop. 

For children, change can be overwhelming and even incredibly frightening if they don't understand what's going on. Adults often assume that children are too young to notice or comprehend the changes happening around them, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Children pick up on very subtle cues and while they may not be able to articulate what they sense, don't doubt that they are aware and they are affected.

Change can be difficult for many people and there are myriad reasons why. For me, a lot of the difficulty has to do with my need for control which I think stems, in part, from my early childhood in which there was constant change and very little in the way of routine. 

Nothing bad happened to me, this was just the way my parents lived in those days. Because of my personality, I eventually developed a coping mechanism of trying to prepare for everything that might possibly happen. Thus, my tendency now to lose it when something doesn't happen the way I thought it would. It would be nice if I could teach my children a better way.
"Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. A predictable routine allows children to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives. As this sense of mastery is strengthened, they can tackle larger changes: walking to school by themselves, paying for a purchase at the store, going to sleepaway camp." ~ Dr. Laura Markham 
Routine is, or course, not possible 100% of the time. And there are times when change has to happen. Some of the most common questions I get from clients are ones about how to help their children navigate a change in routine like parents going on a vacation, a move to a new house and even changing behavior like how to fix a bedtime routine that's gotten out of control

One of the methods that I suggest often is using story books that parents make themselves. Stories help children make sense of their environment, their emotions and their behavior. With children of any age, but particularly children who are quite young, picture books help make any kind of lesson one is trying to teach much more concrete for them. Too many words can simply get confusing for them, but a few sentences combined with a picture really allows them to take in and understand the message.

You don't need to be a great artist or writer to make these books and they don't need to take a lot of time or cost much. The great thing about them is that you can really do them however you wish, in a very short amount of time and they will help your family immensely. 

How To Make A Story Book

Honestly, don't worry about what
your drawings look like!
  • What is the book made of? I have made books out of folded sheets of printer paper that I staple along the fold to mimic the idea of a bound book. I have made books on Shutterfly using photos and printed the book out. I have used a 3-ring binder and plastic inserts into which I slipped 8.5" x 11" paper. You can even buy blank books and fill the pages in like a sketch pad or a scrap book! It doesn't matter what it looks like, just do what feels right for you. Do remember that your kids will love this book and want to see it and have you read it often, so don't make it too precious.
  • But I can't draw! And it doesn't matter. You can make stick figures, you can use photos, you can cut pictures from magazines. Your kids don't care as long as they are in the book and you are reading it to them. 
  • When do I read it to the kids? Depending on the nature of the event you're working with, I would slip the book into your regular reading ritual. For most people this means before bedtime or nap time. But feel free to read it whenever the kids ask about it or whenever you feel like they may need reminding.
  • Do I have to keep making new ones? When it comes to something like sleep routines, you may want to try a binder with inserts only so that you can pull out one page that may not fit the bill anymore (say, for example, your children no longer sleep in cribs etc.) and insert an updated page without having to make an entirely new book.

Preparing Children For Upcoming Change

The arrival of a new baby, a move to a new home, moving from the crib into a big kid bed, parents going on a trip without the kids, starting a new school. All of these sorts of things are example of changes in your children's lives which may come up and which may cause them some anxiety if they aren't prepared for it. Additionally, creating a book about these events opens up a dialogue between parents and kids so that you can really begin to understand how they feel and they, in turn, get to experience their parents as people to whom they can turn when they have fears.

Obviously, every child is different and yours may be the type who goes with the flow easily, but even so, taking the time to carefully explain to them what new things are coming up will only help your kids. Use simple sentences they understand and try to get into their heads a little to figure out what might come up for them during whatever event you're working on. Books about upcoming changes should include the following components:
Some of our daughter's favorite things
that all needed to come along when she
moved out of the nursery.
  • Be clear. State, in a positive way, what the change is going to be. "Sometimes mommy and daddy go on a trip. When that happens, Aunt Lisa and Uncle Rich come to stay! Colin and Ben know that mommy and daddy always come back. This is a book about how much fun Colin and Ben will have when mommy and daddy go on their trip!"
  • Point out how special it will be for the child in question. For example, in the case of moving to a new home you could highlight that the child will have a new room she can help decorate or that there is a big tree to climb in the yard. If parents are traveling, perhaps the kids are doing some special events while you are away which you can detail. "When mommy and daddy are away, Lilah and Sam will get to go swimming at Grandpa Jack's house and eat ice cream in their pajamas!"
  • Remind the child of all the things that will be the same. Children don't have the experience to know that their whole lives won't be turned upside down just because one thing is changing. In the case of a new baby brother or sister, you could remind your child that his bed will still be his own and that he will still have special mommy time every Thursday. In the example of moving from the nursery to a "big kid" room, you can remind your child that their nightlight will still be the same as will their favorite teddy bear. List as many things as you wish. "Even though you will be in a new room, you will still have Mr. Bear and your squishy pillow. Your sleeping music will be the same as it always was, too!"
  • Talk about everything that will be new. Don't shy away from bringing up that things will be different. Just frame it in a positive way. "At your new school there will be kids who love Ninjago as much as you do and they may be your new friends!" Children also want to know that what they feel is normal and they are OK for feeling that way: "You may sometimes feel jealous or mad when mommy is cuddling with your new sister. It's OK to feel that way. If you do ever feel yucky about the new baby, come tell mommy or daddy and we can help you" or "You may miss mommy and daddy when we are away, but your favorite aunt, Lisa, will be here to cuddle with you so you can talk about mommy and daddy as much as you want."
  • Go over their routine. Even if this one thing is changing, much of their day will be the same. They will still have pancakes for breakfast, they will still ride in mommy's car to school, they will still go to their favorite music class on Tuesdays, they will still have bath time before bed and daddy will still tuck them in. If you're making about about being away from them, be sure to let them know who will be with them doing all of their routine ("Aunt Erika will give you your bath on Sunday night and put you to bed. Then, in the morning, she will drive you to school! You can show her where you go to school and maybe even introduce her to your friends!") Again, knowing the routine brings comfort to children and allows them to feel safe. Finding a way to present things so it feels exciting, but reassuring, is what you want.
  • They have each other. If you have more than one child who is experiencing the event in question, you can remind them of how much they love each other, how each of them will be there to help the others, how they can ask their siblings for help if they need it and so forth. 
  • Bottom line. In whatever way you want to get the point across: you are loved, we are taking care of you, you are safe, you can talk to us if you are worried and we respect you enough to know what is happening in our family.

Can Story Books Be Used For Changing Behaviors?

No matter how much sibling squabbling happens, I
know my kids will help each other through it all. 
In addition to helping kids navigate changes in their lives, these books are also extremely helpful when parents wish to make changes in routines or behaviors. 

As I mentioned, we've used them successfully to work on our children's sleep issues including early waking, repeated night waking, prolonging saying goodnight and more. I detailed one such book in an earlier post called Toddler Sleep Battles. I've also seen them used successfully for clients who had a lot of difficulty with their children around meal times, when a family had made a decision to cut back on how much screen time was being allowed in the home, for families who had lots of trouble getting their children dressed and out of the door in time for school and many other similar struggles. 

I'm a big fan of making our own story books because they can be done quickly, inexpensively and you can tailor them to the exact event you are experiencing. Honestly, your kids will love them, no matter what they look like and if you are consistent about what you say you're going to do (in terms of the ones you might make for behavior modification), they really do work.

I'd love to hear if you've ever used anything like this or what you think about the method. And if you're inspired to make one, let me know how it works out for you! 
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