Imagine this situation. You wake up one morning, but you are not in your own bed or house. Instead, you’re in a strange bed and strange house that you have never seen before. You look beside you, where your spouse is typically sleeping, and no one is there.
Like every morning, you venture to the kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee. But when you finally find the kitchen, you can’t find your favorite coffee cup, the only cup you’ve used every morning for the last 5 years, so you have to drink out of an unfamiliar mug that you find in the cupboard. You know that today is your big presentation, so you hurry to get ready. But where are the products you need to take a shower and fix your hair the way you like it? Where are your clothes and shoes, especially the suit you picked out specifically for this presentation? You can’t find anything that belongs to you, so you have to use what you can find.
By the time that you are finished taking a shower and getting dressed, you look in the mirror and see someone unfamiliar to you staring back. Your hair looks different because you didn’t have the products or the supplies that you normally use to style your hair. Your outfit doesn’t look quite the way that you had planned it to when you envisioned this big presentation, because you couldn’t find the suit you wanted to wear. Finally, it is time to leave for work. You walk outside and see that your car is not there and you wonder how you are going to make it to work on time today to even give this big presentation.
Most people would agree that waking up to this scenario on a work day would make for a pretty uncomfortable and possibly stressful day, week or more depending on how dependent a person is on a daily routine. Most people would also say that there is no reason to worry about a situation like this, because it will never happen. For most adults, this is a true statement. This probably won’t happen to most adults on any given day.
However, this is not true for children. Actually, every single day many children are going through this exact kind of situation as they are introduced to daycare, placed in foster care, or moved into the home of extended family after the death of a parent or parents. Despite the fact that most adults would agree that this would be a difficult and possibly unbearable experience for them, most overlook the impact that an experience like this can have on a young child who is still trying to figure out how the world works and who will be there to take care of him.
Unfortunately for most children, many adults do not recognize that when a primary caregiver like mom or dad leaves for an extended period of time, most children have the fear that this person is gone forever, never to return. One can just imagine the stress that this has on a child who believes that her survival is rooted in the presence of this caregiver. One can also easily see the impact that this loss has on a child’s functioning and behaviors during that day or week.
When adults are challenged to care about the experiences they put children through, many like to say, “Kids are resilient” and move on. However, recent research suggests that this is not only incorrect, but also that this mentality can be damaging to the physical development of the brain, and therefore the functional capacities of the brain now and in the future. While children can take some stressors in stride, just as some adults can, placing them in a situation in which they have no idea if a parent is coming back to get them again can be stressful and may lead to emotional breakdowns, behaviors, and extreme changes in eating and sleeping behaviors.
However, children who receive advance, detailed warnings about this change in their life and strong emotional support during this transition not only will have fewer emotional breakdowns, behaviors and changes in eating and sleeping habits, but they will also not experience near the amount of stress on their developing brain, thus protecting the brain’s capacities for the future.
So how does a parent prepare a child for a major change like this? How does a parent tell an infant or one-year-old that something is going to happen when the child cannot even talk yet? In times when the adult doesn’t have advanced warning, like the death of a parent, there may not be an opportunity for advanced warning. However, if the adult has any inclination that a major change is going to happen in the child’s life, there absolutely are opportunities to help the child to prepare for it.
Here are a few suggestions for parents, child care providers, social workers, and others to use when a child is faced with—or going to be faced with—a major transition to a new situation, whether that is a permanent or temporary placement.
Talk About It
No matter what age the child is, even an infant, it can be valuable for the adult to tell the child when a transition is coming. While a newborn coming to daycare for the first time may not understand what a parent is saying, within a few months of life an infant is capable of recognizing similar words and names of places. This age group can benefit from the conversation if the child recognizes the name of the place or the caregiver that the child will spend time with.
If the infant is familiar with the location or the caregiver, repeatedly talking about the caregiver in advance, letting the infant spend time with the caregiver, and then talking about the caregiver on the way to that first day of the transition will make the transition easier for the infant than if the parents did nothing but drop the child off with no warning.
Toddlers can understand even more words than infants, but it is tempting for adults to think that they don’t know most words simply because this age group cannot speak these words. If an adult tells a one-year-old to find the baby doll, most likely the one-year-old will leave the room and find the baby doll to bring back to the parent. This indicates that the child knows what a baby doll is, even though she might not be able to say the word baby. This knowledge helps us to understand that while the one-year-old in this situation cannot ask about going to grandma’s house, she does know who grandma is and will be able to create an image in her brain as soon as her parent talks about an upcoming visit to grandma’s house.
Parents of toddlers should talk repeatedly in advance of any transition. Like the infant, toddlers will benefit from these conversations if they are familiar with the person or the place where they are going. In addition, the toddler needs to hear what will happen when she gets there: who will be there, what she will do there, how long she will be there, and who will pick her up. Some of this information may be too advanced for her understanding depending on how long the toddler will be there and what kind of location the child is going to.
As children get older, it becomes easier for adults to have more detailed conversations about where the child will be going. Children who are around the age of three will actually be able to have a reciprocal, verbal communication when informed of an upcoming change to the schedule. Adults should tell this age of child exactly what is to be expected during this transition. Parents need to be sure to cover all of the information that a child needs to know for this transition, including topics related to where he will be going, what kinds of activities will be there, who will be there, how long he will be there, and when he should expect someone to return for him. Afterward, the parent needs to be prepared and willing to answer any questions, even if the child spends an hour asking questions that do not seem relevant to the situation.
It is very important for adults to know that when children are faced with a major transition or change, like a divorce, one of the first questions that a young child will have is typically, “Who is going to feed me?” While this seems a very odd question to adults because they know that any responsible adult is going to make sure that a child is fed, to the child this seems to be the most important worry to have, since he has relied on one or two people in a specific setting to take care of this responsibility for him up to this point in his life. So, when a young child asks many questions regarding the upcoming transition, just answer the questions because the questions come out of fear and concern for the child’s well-being, not an attempt to annoy.
When trying to talk with young children about anything, rules, expectations, letters, numbers, shapes, etc., it is always easier with visuals. Visuals—meaning pictures or anything that a child can see that represents the topic being discussed—help children put an image in their mind to the words being discussed. Imagine trying to teach a child the letter A, that the letter A makes the “Aah” sound, and that apple starts with the letter A. Without an image of the letter A, for example on an alphabet strip or in a book, the child has learned very little about the concept of the letter A.
This idea can be used when talking about an upcoming transition, too. As parents talk to their child about going to grandma’s house while they go on a week-long vacation, the child may need a visual to give her a better concept of the understanding of what is being told to her. For example, if parents say to their child that next week, the child is going to stay at grandma’s house while the parents go to California for a week, the parents are assuming that the child has a concept of time (in this case, the understanding of how long a week lasts), the concept of grandma and grandma’s house, and the concept that California is different than a local location, like the park or mall.
To help children get a better grasp on these concepts, which most children under age 3 at minimum do not understand, visuals will be incredibly helpful. In this situation, it would be best for the parents to start the conversation about the trip one week prior to the parents’ trip and create a paper chain with pictures leading up to the event and to the parent’s return. One week prior to the trip, the parents can sit down with their child and inform the child of the trip. In the child’s bedroom or in some other familiar place to the child, the parents can post a family photo that includes the parents and child, followed by a seven-link paper chain leading to a picture of the child with grandma. If the parents have a separate picture of just the parents, this picture can be added, next to, but clearly separate from the picture of the child with grandma. Then following that picture should be another seven-link paper chain that leads to the same family picture on the opposite side of the chain.
Each night, or morning, depending on when the parents want to talk to the child or possibly at what time during the day the parents plan to leave for their trip, the parents can talk with the child about the upcoming trip and allow the child to tear off one chain leading to the trip. This gives the child a visual that the day of separation from mom and dad is getting closer and closer. It also helps to give the child an understanding of time. The child gets used to tearing off one link each day and starts to recognize the concept of the day, versus having to think about what a week means.
When the child is with grandma, then grandma can help the child to tear off the paper links each day leading up to mom and dad’s return. Having the pictures demonstrates to the child that while mom and dad are away right now, they will be returning, since the picture at the end of the paper chain shows the family together again. Having the same paper chain between pictures helps the child to recognize that just like mom and dad went away when the chain disappeared, so too will they return when the new paper chain disappears, because that is what the picture shows.
Arrange for Consistency
The first day that a child of any age goes to a new place, like daycare for example, will be a difficult transition. When a child is used to the same thing every day, the addition of a new place and new way of doing things can be both overwhelming and stressful to most, if not all children. However, a transition to a new place does not have to be so difficult, for the child or for the people caring for the child in the new place. When a child transitions from one place to another but participates in the same routines and rituals that he participates in at home, the transition goes a lot smoother. This is because the child recognizes the familiar routines and transitions and feels comfortable that the same type of care will be provided to him at this new place that he is familiar with at home with his parents.
If parents are able to arrange in advance of any transition for the new location to continue these routines and transitions, the child will experience less stress and less crying, so therefore there will be fewer emotional outbursts or breakdowns and minimal lasting negative impact on the child’s developing brain. The best way to do this is for the parent to talk with the adult or adults who will be caring for the child in the future. The parent can prepare a cheat sheet of information regarding the child’s regular routines. For example, the parent can explain that while changing the baby’s diaper, she always sings Baa Baa Black Sheep, and that the baby always drinks a bottle before he goes down for a nap.
While these things may seem silly to request of another caregiver, the familiarity of the song while getting his diaper changed reminds the baby that this is what his mom does for him. The stress he feels in this confusing new situation can be eliminated simply because he hears this song that is familiar to him. Most young children thrive on routines and rituals because they have no way of knowing what to expect next in their day without them. If the child experiences the same routines and rituals at the new location, he knows what to expect next and can feel more comfortable with his surroundings, and less stressed or worried. The more information a parent is able to share with the new caregiver, the better off the child will be.
Now, a note for the new caregiver (i.e. daycare provider, grandma and grandpa, foster parents, etc.). What benefit comes to the child if the parent shares all of this information with the new caregiver, but the new caregiver does not implement it? The answer is simple: no benefit, and possibly great harm. As human beings, we tend to be critical of others, giving our own opinion regarding how well someone is accomplishing a task. Parenting is one of the most controversial topics in existence right now. Most parents, and non-parents, believe that they have discovered the right way to parent. This mentality can be very dangerous for a child facing a new transition. If grandma decides that she knows how to parent better than the child’s parents and alters a routine during the transition to prove that she is right and the child is capable of something that the parents and grandma have been in disagreement about in the past, this may actually cause more stress and harm to the child, even if grandma’s intent is to benefit the child.
For anyone who is to be the new caregiver, for the short-term or the long-term, it is important that they understand the impact of the transition on the child and the importance of maintaining those consistent routines and rituals during the absence of the parent. There will be plenty of time in the future to try to break perceived bad habits and teach new, more appropriate habits.
Since adults typically don’t have the luxury to eliminate uncomfortable transitions for children, because of many reasons, avoiding these transitions simply because of the negative impact on the child usually isn’t an option. Instead, parents still may have to place a child in the care of another, such as daycare or relative placement during a vacation. However, just because the transition has to happen, does not mean that a negative impact has to happen for the child. If parents can follow these simple tips to warn children and prepare them for an upcoming transition, the short-term and long-term negative impact on the child can easily be minimized, if not eliminated.