Question: My 10-year-old daughter likes sameness — same clothes, same decorations in her bedroom, same friends, same toys. There hasn’t been much change in our family since she’s been born, as we have lived in the same house since she was 3, both parents have the same jobs, she’s been in the same school for five years. Last night she was crying over moving to middle school in 1
Answer: When I read about your daughter, I see a couple of important points about change and children:
She has been offered a beautiful, stable, dependable and routine home. From parents to friends to environment, she knows who and what she will see and do. You can ask any child specialist: This stability plays a very large role in helping a child to grow into a physically and emotionally healthy adult. The more stability, the healthier the child.
It is important to note, though, that the most important stability comes in the form of caregivers. This is why children in military families, for example, can move and, though it is hard, the consistency of the primary parent allows for emotional safety. Wherever there is Mom/Dad/caregiver, there is home.
My point is that your daughter sounds perfectly normal to me and is also having a normal reaction to the anticipation of leaving her safe elementary school. The fact that she is having some tears about it (such a healthy sign) means that she can imagine a different life and that causes her fear and sadness. Well, okay! That sounds normal to me! I have often, in my life, been excited for a change and been tearful as it approached (having a baby being a great example).
This brings me to my next point: You can help prepare her for some change without arbitrarily creating challenges for her to “get over.” For instance, she is already imagining her world changing, so the first step is to allow her to talk out her thoughts and feelings. Do some listening: Is her imagination going out of control? Is she imagining something scarier or bigger than what is really going to happen? If this is the case, a great thing to do is to visit the school. Every middle school has an open house when families can visit. Simply seeing the building will do much to allay some fears in your daughter, as well as give you both a place to imagine.
As well as visiting the school, I would strongly consider a one- or two-week overnight summer camp experience. While daunted at first, many children are profoundly changed by the safe freedom an overnight camp can offer. Fresh air, exercise, zero technology, working with hands, working within groups and generally having fun is an amazing way to bolster courage and meet new people. If your daughter flat-out refuses to go, promote day camps that have her taking safe and fun chances. Low risk, high reward.
Whatever you do, resist the urge to label her as “anxious” (especially to her). When we label what is mostly normal behavior as something “wrong,” we tend to overreact and see only problems.
I truly want you to see what you have done for your daughter, which is healthy and good. I also want you to see the expression of worry and fear as good. And the fact that she cries to you, the parents, is GOOD. This is what you want. You don’t want a young woman who cries by herself. You don’t want a young woman to hide her fears. These emotions need to move. Embrace them, allow them, and that will help her be ready for change.
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Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Feb. 18.