Adults themselves have difficulty embracing change, so you can imagine how much harder it can be for children.
What does "freaking out" look like?
What "freaking out" looks like is different for every child, but the behaviors fall into two categories: passive resistance and aggressive resistance. Aggressive resistance includes behaviors such as yelling, hitting and stomping ... like a tantrum. Although the behaviors may not seem as destructive or severe, passive resistance is also very difficult to respond to. Passive resistance reactions usually include refusing to go somewhere or participate in an activity or task, avoiding communication and self-isolation.
It's important to first understand a child's development and how it relates to their ability to cope with new situations. This article explains that the frontal lobe (which isn't fully developed until around age 25), helps with problem solving, memory, language, judgment, impulse control and social behavior. Because your child's frontal lobe isn't fully developed, it
is biologically difficult for most children to adequately label and express their emotions.And while older children and teenagers better understand appropriate social behavior and how to cope with change, they still struggle with the impulse to lash out.
As the article points out, freaking out is "not only normal, but reasonable" based on a child's brain development.
But don't get discouraged and think that you'll have to wait until your child is 25 to see improvement in their behavior. The good news is that as a parent you can help your child prepare for changes of all kinds. Escalated responses are a natural consequence of brain development, but there are other causes that contribute to meltdowns:
1. Fear of the unknown
One of the most common and well-known causes of freaking out when your child is introduced to a new situation. When a child doesn't know what to expect, they can experience anxiety. That uncomfortable anticipation is often more unsettling than the actual event.
A child may believe they don't have the skills or knowledge necessary to do well in the new situation. Because of this, they resist change by having a strong emotional reaction to stop possible embarrassment or failure.
3. Not knowing why
As parents, we may think we are being very clear about an upcoming situation, but according to a child's underdeveloped language and comprehension skills, we aren't making sense. Our children may not fully understand what is going to change or why it's going change. They may also not understand why this chance is necessary or what good will come out of it.
4. Change of routine
Establishing routines help children feel secure and in control. If routines are comforting to your child, it's understandable that any change in that schedule can produce an anxiety fueled meltdown.
How can you help?
Although you can't take away all fears, as a parent, you can help prepare your child for the new experience by explaining the events ahead of time. Explain what your expectations are for them. Make your children aware that something unexpected may come up and then create a plan of how to react appropriately. Most importantly, role-play different scenarios often before the new experience. Role-play is the best way to set your child up for success. Fear is reduced when children feel prepared and have practiced the appropriate behavior several times.
Even with preparation, your child may still have a negative reaction. Prepare yourself to respond appropriately as well, no matter your child's reaction.
If your child is not able to function well on daily tasks, has suddenly stopped participating in activities that were once enjoyable, has physical pain with no medical explanation, and/or experiences frequent panic attacks, seek help from a therapist or psychologist. Children diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Autism also have a higher tendency to react negatively to new situations. If your child struggles in some of these areas, much can be done to help them gain the skills they need to succeed. Seek extra help, if necessary.