Our desire for ritual is instinctual and crucial to our development: rituals teach us the rules of our culture and create an order through which we can understand life’s chaos. In school and home, simple daily rituals like washing your hands before eating, pushing in your chair when you stand up, cleaning up one toy before moving on to the next toy helps establish routine, and create a consistent and predictable environment that helps children feel calm and competent. Bigger events and ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and birthdays provide a great opportunity to help children feel involved and included, sharing excitement and indoctrinating them into their culture.
Headline events such as weddings and funerals create an obvious need for a ceremony, but there are plenty of other opportunities in children’s lives that call for rituals like moving to a new house, ending a school year, giving up a pacifier or becoming a big brother or sister.
As any parent can tell you, these times of change can be challenging, frustrating, confusing and sometimes even scary for kids (not to mention the adults who love them). Even when a change is due to a positive milestone or ultimately good for a child’s development, children may experience the change as a loss of what had been. This is because all of these events threaten the child’s status quo and can throw a family’s balance out of whack, making rituals especially important.
Here are some things to remember when creating ritual around life’s more common losses or changes:
Kids like to know their role. When families grow and change, children may be forced to adjust to an entirely new understanding of their place in the family. Adults can help but taking every opportunity to recognize the child’s individuality and affirming their unique place of importance. When a major change happens consider giving your child a special new job title and explore the role’s expectations and responsibilities with them.
Kids like jobs. While it may seem counter-intuitive, any teacher or parent can tell you that kids love to work (if it’s work they're good at). Most children will jump at the chance to help with tasks they can successfully complete and will revel in the praise it garners them, building confidence and competence. Give them a concrete job or way to contribute as an individual in challenging times. Give them a calendar to decorate and manage, where they can count down or record events. These jobs lend them a sense of control.
Kids like growing. They love to experience themselves as big, and to embrace their ever-increasing skill set. Efforts to mark their growth and reflect on how far they’ve come promote healthy development and encourage continued progress. Take a tape measure and have them mark their height at important moments. They’ll like to reflect back and it will help them assimilate their experiences into their ever-changing identities.
Kids seek clear boundaries. Every parent has experienced the push-pull that is negotiating with children. A clear boundary that is drawn with the help of ceremony or ritual (like giving up a pacifier or crib or diapers) helps both kids and adults who love them avoid confusing back-and-forth’s or mixed messages.
Kids get comfort from objects. Since the beginning of time, young children have become attached to comforting things. In psychology, we call these things transitional objects: they provide comfort as the child gradually transitions from dependence to independence. Some transitional objects are safer or healthier or more socially-acceptable than others. Adults can help steer children to appropriate transitional objects while maintaining a respect for them as important tools for the child’s sense of safety and security.
For more information about how you can help kids commemorate change, and to see how I've incorporated these tenets into specially-curated care boxes for kids, read on to PARTS TWO and THREE.
Are there other transition points you’ve noticed that were difficult for your children to navigate?
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.