Change is hard
Change is incredibly difficult for children, and if that change is related to who is taking care of them all day long, it’s exponentially more difficult. This is in large part because this kind of change is inherently at odds with two fundamental truth about kids:
1) They thrive in environments that are predictable and in which they feel a sense of ownership and control.
2) They are hard-wired to seek closeness and attention from their caregivers–this is the basis of secure attachment.
When children have to make changes to their routine, especially when that change is connected to a new nanny or daycare, they may feel as if their world has lost its anchors and everything is floating off in all directions.
Here’s a little secret–adults aren’t so great with change either. In fact, picture how you would feel if your world lost its anchors. Being unmoored is unsettling and best, terrifying at worst. So remind yourself of this when you are approaching changes in your child’s routine so that you are able to tap into your empathy and also troubleshoot effectively–if you know that a lack of control leads to anxiety, then you can strategize ways to minimize their experience of “out-of-control-ness” as you introduce change.
In order to effectively support a child, we first need to understand what is going on under the hood. So let’s talk a little but about the why–why is change so hard? Once we understand this, then we can generate effective strategies for introducing change, minimizing its impact, validating and holding space for their reactions to that change, and finally shoring them up in other areas of their life so that they continue to experience a sense of control and agency in their worlds even when things are changing.
Change is hard for kids for a number of reasons, here are the major ones:
- Change shakes things up, and adds an element of unpredictability and newness. Unfortunately this is also the exact recipe for anxiety:
Lack of perceived control + Uncertainty = Anxiety
- Change requires our brains to be able to shift sets, which is a skill housed in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of our brain to develop (it’s finally fully functioning in young adulthood), and for young children it is very hard for them to access and engage this part of their brain. It is not impossible, but it requires a very regulated nervous system and a lot of environmental support in the moment.
- Children are hardwired to seek proximity and comfort from their caregivers. This means that they are highly attuned to their environment and the adults in their lives, and they can not only sense the teeny-tiniest change in their surroundings, but they can also sense the teeny-tiniest change in the emotions and stress levels of their grownups. So when we are stressing about switching up the routine, introducing a new nanny, or transitioning our kids to daycare, they feel it. And if we aren’t putting words to those feelings for them, they are filling in the blanks with what limited resources they have which can also lead to more anxiety. Since we know anxiety is related to a perceived lack of control, this will likely be expressed by increased control-seeking behaviors (read: resistance, clinginess, testing limits, and meltdowns).
So now we have a sense of why children are so shaken by changes in their environment, and why that usually results in behaviors like resistance, clinginess, testing limits, and meltdowns–which we can now understand as SYMPTOMS, not “bad behavior”. Let’s talk a little but about how to support them through change so those symptomatic behaviors can lessen.
I like to break these strategies down into 4 major categories:
- Validate/Hold Space
- Go Slow
- Supplement/Compensate with Authentic Control
When it comes to helping a child prepare for transitions of any kind, the first step is to talk about it as much as possible so they can prepare and process. Help them to imagine whatever is about to change so they can begin to feel some sense of control and agency. Before a new nanny comes to the house, or before they start at a new daycare, begin talking to them about what will happen, what it will look like, what will change, what will stay the same, etc. Help them to imagine what kinds of feelings they might have, who they will see, what they will do. It’s almost as though we want to help them to create an entire story, complete with pictures, in their mind. The more details the better! And don’t be afraid to do this a lot—repetition is very helpful for kids.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “that’s fine for an older toddler, but what about my younger toddler or baby who is not yet verbal?” And to that I would say, talk about it all anyway. This can be a hard point to sell to everyone, but I genuinely believe that even our youngest babies benefit from being informed about what is happening to them and what they can expect. While they might not understand the actual words, they do still understand tone, affect, and body language. If you are talking in a calm and authentic way (not fake super excited, but also not anxious or worried yourself) your child is going to sense “ok something is happening, but mom/dad seems comfortable so that means I can feel comfortable.”
VALIDATE & HOLD SPACE
Another important piece is to allow space for ALL the feelings your child might be having in response to this new change. It might feel tempting to move them out of negative feelings and towards more positive feelings, but if they’re expressing sadness or fear, try to validate those emotions and not try to convince them out of them or distract from them.
It’s also possible to help them recognize that they are likely having a wide range of feelings. This might look like “I know there are parts of you that don’t want to go back to daycare, and that you feel sad about leaving mom and dad. I also know there are parts of you that feel excited to play with your friends and parts of you that love your teachers too. It’s OK to feel all kinds of different things.” Note: if they’re sad in that particular moment, just validate the sadness. The conversation about all the emotions should happen later when they’re calm and you’re just talking.
Also, it’s important to remember that this transition might legitimately be tough for them! However, kids can handle tough things best when the adults in their lives recognize that something IS tough and step up their support accordingly. This not only sends the message that they can do tough things, but that mom and/or dad trust in their innate abilities to persevere and don’t go anywhere while they are working through it.
Children’s brains take longer to process information than adult brains do, so as a general rule of thumb, it is a good idea to slow everything down just a bit whenever you are engaging with a child. Talk more slowly, move more slowly, and transition more slowly. It is okay if a transition to a new form of childcare takes a few weeks to get to full steam. If we can have an attuned, intentional, and measured introduction to this change, we are likely going to see a return on that initial investment of time up front.
When transitioning to daycare–whether is it back to a familiar setting or beginning in a brand new place–it might be worth exploring with the daycare program how your child can do a slow transition. For example, maybe 1-1.5 hours the first day, then 2-3 hours the second, 3-4 the next, and so on until they get used to being there full time. Kids can take time to warm up to a place and the shorter intervals in the beginning allow them a smaller window of separation until they begin to internalize the knowledge that mommy or daddy always come back.
When introducing your child to a new nanny, it’s important to be very mindful of your child’s personal boundaries. It can be tempting to push a child to “be polite” and tell them to “say hi” or “give a hug” to a new nanny. While the intentions behind this kind of encouragement is usually very well meaning, it can make a child freeze up or, worse, to learn to ignore their internal experience of discomfort for the sake of pleasing you. This is a really problematic message to send to our children. We want them to not only listen to and trust their internal boundaries, but to know that we recognize those boundaries as well and will respect and protect them. That is the basis for trust in others and self confidence later in life. We want to send the message to our children that they get to warm up to this new person at their own pace and in their own way.
SUPPLEMENT/COMPENSATE WITH AUTHENTIC CONTROL
To make up for the inevitable loss of control that comes with changing a big part of a child’s routine, we want to provide a lot of opportunities for them to find other ways to feel in control. One really helpful strategy for this is offering a lot of Authentic Choices–preset choices they can pick from that you are comfortable following through on whatever they decide. This might look like, “do you want peas or carrots with your chicken?” “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the yellow one?” These are low stakes choices, presented often, which allow a child to experience a legitimate sense of agency and authentic control over aspects of their day to day.
A Note on Guilt:
An article on transitioning our children out of our care and into the care of a nanny or daycare could not possibly be complete if it did not address the dreaded G-word: GUILT. As a parent, I know you are no stranger to guilt, but there is a special set of guilty thoughts reserved just for when we consciously make decisions that physically separate us from our children.
In order to normalize this, I must remind you of the point I made earlier about how children are hardwired to seek connection and proximity to their caregivers–the thing is, we caregivers are also hardwired to provide connection and proximity to our children. So it would make sense that behaving in a way that is in opposition to that hardwiring is going to elicit a strong internal response.
But the thing I really really want to emphasize is that while these guilty thoughts and feelings make a lot of sense, they do not have to be the only narrative you are attending to. It is okay to say, “sharing my caregiving responsibilities with someone else makes me feel guilty, I’m literally hardwired to feel that way and I know that I am a good parent and that asking for and accepting help does not alter that in any way.”
Especially now, in this time of upheaval, uncertainty, and fear, it is exceptionally difficult to make the choice to bring a person into your home to help care for your child or to send your child out to a place of care. And in the same way that we are striving to validate and hold space for our children’s discomfort and pain, it’s so important for us to validate for ourselves that it is a hard, maybe even painful choice, but that it is also okay to make it.
You are a good parent. You are doing a good job.