Presto-chango! Just as the moving boxes are stashed in the corner, the custody agreement worked out, or school begins for the year, your fiercely independent preschooler has decided it’s time to be glued to your leg. And, as if that isn't hard enough, his upbeat, happy-go-lucky second grade sister is snarling at the world and sulking in the corner with the moving boxes. You're stressed, exhausted and worried: what is going on here?
The answer is likely in the changing situation itself. Though the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children are uniquely able to bounce back from rough times, even the most resilient of children don't like change-- especially if it’s outside their control. Children's lives are full of stressful situations: moving, divorces and new schools, to name a few. But is all this clinging and crying normal?
According to Ellis Copeland of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), it is, as are other behaviors. "Each child," says Copeland "may develop unique symptoms or individual styles of handling stress." That isn't to say there aren't some typical symptoms to look for. In reaction to significant life changes, preschool-age children and their elementary-age siblings often show both regressive and new emotional behaviors. Included are:
- bed-wetting and thumb-sucking
- fear of sleeping alone, nightmares, or other sleeping difficulties
- somatic complaints (headaches, stomaches or generally "feeling bad")
- sadness, anger or irritability with no apparent trigger
- anxiety or fear (including separation anxiety)
While these symptoms are upsetting for parents, experiencing some of them for a limited time isn't unexpected and doesn't necessarily require outside help. You should seek professional assistance if symptoms affect your child's ability to enjoy normal activities, affect his school performance, or don't ease up after 4 to 6 weeks. Start by talking to the pediatrician, and be specific about your concerns.
Throughout all of this, it's important to remember that your child is reacting to the loss of something familiar, whether it is a home, a family unit, or even just a routine. Your child is, in a sense, mourning a former way of life and his behavior is reflective of his mourning process. In fact, the National Mental Health Association reassures parents that it can take a long time to recover from a loss because losses affect a child's sense of security. However, there are a few things you can do to make your child's transition a little easier and make him feel more secure. Try to:
- Keep a predictable schedule and routine
- Encourage your child to talk about his feelings
- Acknowledge and respect his loss
The reality is that life is full of change. Perhaps the best way to explain that to your child is in the immortal words of Dr. Suess: “I'm sorry to say so, sadly it's true, that bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you.”