Dealing with change and loss

Any form of change or loss can be unsettling for young children. Children like stability and it gives them comfort. All parents have had the experience of a young child insisting that they read the same story to them over and over again, or that they continually watch the same video or listen to the same song. Young children benefit from having certain routines - for example, ways of going to bed, rituals about what is said and done when they get up in the morning, and so forth. Children need to have parameters of lifestyle and behaviour set for them, and lack of boundaries can lead to a poorly-developed sense of self, poor self-control and inadequate social skills.

In general, children are poorer at anticipating change than adults, but can often appear to adapt more quickly once the change has occurred. Any form of change, such as going to a new school or moving to a new neighbourhood, can be experienced as very unsettling, regardless of how much improvement the change brings. For example, an adult moving to a bigger and more luxurious home may think this is exciting and wonderful. However, the child may dread the change or find it disturbing no matter how much s/he might want to have a bigger room or a nicer home. It is normal for them to feel this way.

Once the change has happened, the child's mood may change very quickly and s/he may appear to adapt very quickly to the new situation. In traumatic circumstances, however, this doesn't mean that the change has had no effect on the child - reactions may surface later, even years later. If given the right support, children can be resilient and adapt to changes more rapidly and positively.

A child's experience of the scale of a loss may appear illogical or disproportionate to an adult. For example, a child who has just lost a parent may not appear to grieve openly at all, while the remaining parent is devastated and finds it hard to comprehend that their child wants to go out and play as usual. On the other hand, the loss of a special toy or 'security blanket' may be overwhelming for the child and s/he may be unable to sleep or eat until the toy is found.

Many changes are no one's 'fault'. A parent may change jobs and have to move the family to another city, parents may not get along and may separate or divorce, or a loved one may die. In such situations, adults may understand that no-one is to blame. However, it is common for children to blame someone when they experience an important change or loss. Sometimes they blame themselves, regardless of how unrealistic this may seem to an adult. If this is the case, it is important to say specifically to the child that many children do this but that they are not to blame.

Parents' divorce may be extremely traumatic for a child, and as a result s/he may feel worried, angry and lacking in trust and confidence. Children who have suffered trauma may be aggressive, withdrawn and less able to learn. Respect and understanding from teachers and classmates is therefore crucial to helping the child. Boys in particular may be badly affected if, as is often the case in divorce, the father leaves home. As most early years teachers are women, these boys may lack any stable male role model. Teachers and parents should be aware of this.

Children should also be encouraged to recognize changes within themselves. At this age, they become very aware of their own level of maturity in relation to other children - they can start to see that younger children are more 'babyish' than them, they can see the toys that they no longer play with, and when they start school they quickly learn to define their classmates in terms of years or grades. In this way, they learn at first hand that changes, both good and bad, are a part of life.
Partnership for Children, 26-27 Market Place, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, KT1 1JH, England
Telephone : 00 44 (0) 20 8974 6004 - Registered Charity number: 1089810