Whether it's time for their first sleepover or they are moving schools, starting new things are difficult for children—and their parents. Here is some parenting advice that has worked for me and my clients. Preparing them is simply a matter of giving them the storyline of the event and helping them to remember it.
Step 1: Decide on the story. Make it short, make it positive, make it fun. Use toys and sound effects, use inside jokes.
Step 2: Tell it over and over. Then have your child repeat it back to you.
That's it! It sounds so easy and simple. What these steps do is prepare them to go into a new situation with a set of schemas, or storylines, that help them to know what to expect and how things should go. Adults have lots of storylines that children haven't developed yet.
It helps them to know what going to the doctor is going to be like, starting a new job, or going on a first date. Children don't know all of these yet and this adds to their anxiety about their new experience. Parents can easily use these steps in all kinds of situations!
Let's see someone play with a purpose:
Annie's parents have just separated. It's her first time going to see her Dad at his apartment. Mom is nervous, Annie is nervous, and you can bet Dad is nervous. Mom decides to help Annie know what the visit will be like.
"Pick out some figures for me, you, and Daddy. I'm going to tell you a story." Annie finds the figures and Mom has her name them.
"In three days [or sleeps or however your child counts time], you get to see Daddy at his apartment!" Mom's excited voice tells Annie this will be fun and it is OK for Annie to be excited about it.
"We hug and promise to see each other on Sunday evening—two sleeps from now." Mom then has the Annie figure go through a normal day of school, with some humor thrown in, and shows Annie waiting for Dad at the car pickup line.
"Annie hugs Daddy and Daddy gives her a noogy and they go to dinner." Then Mom has the Annie figure sleep two times and meet up with her on Sunday at 6 p.m.
"Annie hugs Daddy and says good-bye and then says hello to Mommy and hugs Mommy." Mom then tells Annie they will go to dessert or read a book when they get home.
The whole process takes two minutes or less! Mom does this every night before bed and maybe once during the day. She then asks Annie to tell the story and acknowledges any feelings Annie has.
By the end, Annie knows what to expect, has talked to Mom about her concerns, and Dad has a visit with less stress than he might have otherwise. [Adapted from Dr. Landreth's Structured Doll Play].
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