by Alicia Kollmar MS, OTR/L

Are you living with anxiety because your child will meltdown when there is the slightest change in plans? When your child is resistant to change it can affect the whole family. You may be rearranging your schedule for them or avoiding things that might typically be good for you, but a problem for them (like vacations). How do you help your child deal with change and what should you do if there is a meltdown?

First, about the meltdown and how to handle that. In general as long as your child and the people and property around them are safe it’s best to not interact by talking or telling them what to do. Sit quietly with them if they want and allow it, but allow them time alone if they prefer (and if you need to separate yourself to calm down first and are in a place where you can do that, please do). Meltdowns often have to just run their course and interventions aren’t likely to be effective at this time. Check out this blog post for some other helpful tips.

But, of course the hope is to avoid the meltdown in the first place. Keep in mind that when a child has difficulty with change and they are rigid about routines and schedules that it is typically due to anxiety. Having empathy goes a long way to help your child have feelings of safety and it can help you approach the situation from a different perspective. Your child is in distress when they are having a meltdown and this is often the only thing they know to do when they have these big emotions. They need to learn tools or strategies to help them deal with feelings of frustration and disappointment.

At home when the schedule changes you can:

  • Prep your child as much as possible (‘We have a change that we didn’t expect. Instead of ____ we have to do ______. I know you can handle it.” You can also ask her if there is anything she needs to help her with the change–like hug a stuffed animal, hold a favorite toy, etc.)
  • If it’s an unexpected thing try to make light of it (“uh oh, that was unexpected. It looks like we can’t do that today. Oh well. Even though that change was unexpected, I know you can handle it.”
  • Reinforce when he does handle a transition well (or better than usual) by giving praise. It can be tricky to notice the times that things go well, but anytime there is something unexpected and he does well, praise that–make it a big deal. (“Wow, I know that unexpected changes like that can be really hard, but you handled it! I’m so proud of you!”)

In general, we want to avoid accommodating a child’s anxiety. Life happens and plans and schedules will change, so they need to learn to deal with that. However, if you have been rearranging your life and schedule for your child it is not going to be an overnight process. You may need to enlist the help of a professional to help you address this in baby steps and teach your child ways to deal with changes.

I like to involve the children when possible in this process so there is more buy-in for it. We may need to explore the routines and triggers to find the best place to start.

This will take change from not only the child, but the adults in the home, because we tend to have our own triggers and patterns in how we respond and may need to learn new ways to deal with those situations.

It takes time to change how you and your child respond to changes. How long it takes may depend on your child’s diagnosis, ability to learn, and your child’s age. In general, the earlier you can address this rigidity in your child, the better, so start now if you haven’t. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you need support for this.