Life is full of transitions. By the time we are adults many of us have become flexible enough to handle many of these transitions. Some are harder than others, but we have enough practice and developed the cognitive skills to handle it easily. The same is not true for young children. They are developing their brains at a phenomenal rate. They do not have the experiences to draw conclusions about what might happen in the future. There are some easy things you can do to help children when faced with new things or to help them develop the emotional skills that they need to be successful.
As we learn new things they brain develops new pathways, new neural connections. The brain also “prunes” pathways that are no longer used or needed. The first few times we do something new, it’s not smooth or easy, kind of like the first time you walk through a forest with no path, it’s slow and you get tripped up along the way. If you continue to take the same path you start to make a trail. It gets smoother and wider with less things to trip you up or get in your way. If you continue that same path before long it will be so open that you could run down that trail. If you stop using a trail the growth on the sides start to creep in and make the trail more difficult to walk through. After enough time the trail will disappear. If we teach kids new skills to replace less desirable ones, we create new neural pathways and they can abandon the old ones.
Role Playing is a great way to start learning how to act or what to say in new or challenging situations. For example, if your child doesn’t know how to effectively join a group of peers to play, (maybe they rush in and take over or just stand on the sidelines) you can practice lines on how to join a group. For example: “Hi! Can I play?” This is so simple and works well most of the time, especially with preschool and elementary aged kids. As a parent, I sometimes will see that kid on the sidelines wanting to play but not knowing how to ask, I encourage my kids to invite them to join in. Sometimes my kids are nervous about approaching them, so I will do it for them until they develop those skills or get used to doing it.
I have also used role playing when kids struggle when dealing with anger. Many kids struggle when dealing with big emotions. This is pretty normal. We have to teach them how to calm down or how to deal with people when they are angry. These skills need to be practiced when everyone is calm, not in the heat of the moment. You can try to model deep breaths and counting to ten near the upset child. You can also model how to calm down when you are upset and your child is not. Talk out loud about what you are doing. For example: “I am so frustrated. I need to calm down. I’m going to take 5 deep breaths.” Then do it. “I need to count out loud, 1,2,3…” Figure out what it is that you do to calm down and demonstrate it when you do it. Find out what your child needs to calm down and act it out when they are calm. It could be deep breaths, punching a pillow, jumping up and down, running around the room (or house if they are old enough and it’s safe for them to do so on their own), drawing a picture, tearing up paper, etc. Figure it out and help them figure out how to do it. Practice over and over again until they are able to do it when they are angry. It will not happen quickly for many children. They need lots of practice to master this new skill when under stress. Some kids will be able to develop new skills quickly, some kids will need much more time. Keep at it and stay supportive.