Child Caring

Coping skills for a change-adverse child

I have a question about Kindergarten preparedness. We just moved to a new town and my 5 year old daughter will be starting kindergarten next fall. She is bright, very friendly/outgoing, and I'm confident she will do great.

I have noticed with her that she has a lot of anticipation anxiety. For big changes (when her brother was born, and when we recently moved) we had the most trouble before the big event happened. I've tried to not talk about things ahead of time with her. Even if I think it would help me, I know it just makes her anxious. That said, she is very used to her routine of preschool 3 days a week and switching to 5 days at a new school will be a big adjustment. Do you have any tips on how to help a kid who has anticipation anxiety prepare for a big change? I don't want to over-talk but I also want her to know what's going on. Thanks!

From: Jessica, Belmont, MA

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Dear Jessica,

Since you've identified this trait in her, grab the opportunity to help her develop coping mechanisms:

1. Identify traits in yourself, your husband, and your kids, so they get used to the concept: "I'm a person who likes chocolate; dad's a person who is happy when he jogs every day. I've noticed you're a person who likes to x, y and z. " Include silly attributes as well as more serious ones. Generate conversation about the traits. ("When dad doesn't jog, he gets grumpy, doesn't he?") One day, add this one: "I've noticed you're a person who likes to think about changes ahead of time...." Initially, this is just about helping her to identify traits in herself. Since you don't want to make them a self-fulfilling prophesy, look for ways to spin the positive piece of the trait. For instance, not, "You're a person who hates change."

2. Pick a trait about yourself that you can work on and talk about it conversationally. Dad might say, almost in passing, even out of the blue, "When I don't get to jog and I'm feeling grumpy, I talk to myself, to remind myself that tomorrow, I'll be able to get in a run." That becomes a role model for one specific coping skill: identifying an issue and dealing with it by talking to oneself.

3. Help her to learn to brainstorm. "What ideas do you have about how to get ready for a change?"

So far, kindergarten hasn't even come up in the conversation. It's way too soon to be talking about this, but if you start to use this strategy now, you'll have successes to point to when kindergarten gets closer: "Remember when you didn't want to go to that new play ground? And then you went and looked at it and didn't even play? And then we looked another time. And then you decided you could play. And you liked it! You did a really good job of preparing for that change!"

Children this age don't like change because it makes them feel out of control and insecure. An antidote is to give them very concrete information so they can anticipate and picture what to expect. Here's another thing: kids take in information through the senses. Come spring, if you and she are able, tour next year's classroom together and make some sensory-specific notes: What's the weather on the day of your visit? Is there a particular smell to the room? What bright colors do you notice on the walls or floor? Are there any interesting noises, like from a hamster in a cage?

The idea is that when it's time to talk about kindergarten next August, you'll be able to create a story that's full of sensory information your child can key into: "Remember the day we visited? It was pouring rain and we forgot our umbrellas and we got soaked running in from the car! But even though it was so gray outside, do you remember how cheerful the room was? Remember the bright red reading rug? And how the room smelled so delicious, from the lilacs on the teacher's desk?"

Meanwhile, find out when your preschool will do it's pre-k prep, (hopefully not until the very end of school) so you know what to expect. In the meantime, if she has questions, answer truthfully but don't dwell on it. ("When is kindergarten?" "It's next September, that's after the summer, and that's a long time from now.")

But we're getting ahead of ourselves! Write in again in the spring and I'll provide a litany of preparations you can take (or read this.) Better yet, tell your preschool to have me speak in the spring on making the transition. It's one of my favorite talks! One of the other points I make? Getting ready for this change isn't just about the kids. It's also about the parents, especially the dads who typically think it's not a big deal. It is. And that you're focusing on this in December? Is it possible your daughter comes by this trait naturally?