Helping Our Children Break Habits and Cope With Changes – 3 Steps To Ease The Way

A family I know is moving, and their 2 ½ year-old son Jackson has seemed troubled.  Jackson’s parents have had to reassure him several times that moving houses wouldn’t mean leaving his bed and his toys behind. At a recent get together, Jackson’s mom was talking about some of the logistical hassles she was dealing with when she stopped, turned toward him and emphasized, “But we’re glad to be moving to our new house.” Jackson looked unconvinced, and as much as I hated bursting my friend’s bubble, I couldn’t resist speaking on his behalf. “No toddler is happy about moving. Moving is loss.”

One of the challenges of respectful parenting is remembering to readjust our point-of-view and consider our child’s. Jackson’s mom realized that in her struggle to cope with the move herself, she had been denying his negative feelings. I encouraged her to switch gears and acknowledge Jackson’s worries, invite him to express his grief and loss as much as possible. After all, much of what he has known his whole life will disappear.

I am a non-confrontational person and I can certainly relate to tippy-toeing around issues that might upset a child. But I’ve learned that skirting the truth can leave children holding a sack of bad feelings. Harder to bear than the actual emotions is the child’s sense that he is wrong to have his feelings because the well-intentioned parent has cheered them away, shushed, fixed or otherwise denied them.

Infants and toddlers thrive on routine. Whether we are asking them to move, take a trip, start daycare or preschool, stay in the care of someone new, give up a habit of pacifiers or bottles, or move from our bed to a bed of their own, our children need our sensitivity and respect. They need an honest, direct approach to change, and an open-armed acceptance of their feelings about the changes.

Here are 3 steps that help ease infant and toddler transitions:

Be ready and sure. The first step to any change is a parent’s conviction. Perhaps our toddler is not functioning well from night-waking and neither are we, so we decide to make a new sleep plan. We may have waivered for months, but finally both parents have had enough.  Certain about the change ourselves, we can project that certainty for our child and give her the united front of conviction she needs.

Helping our child change habits is usually much easier than we imagine it will be, once we are sure that the change is best for all concerned.  But if we (our child’s leaders) are tentative, uneasy or uncertain, it is much more difficult for the child to transition comfortably. Children can ‘read’ us a mile away.

Prepare. It helps both the parent and the child when we talk honestly about an impending change. The more detail we give, the more included the child feels in the plans, and the more he can anticipate and predict what will happen. Children can get excited about a ride on an airplane if we tell them what to expect or show them a book. Toddlers can even look forward to disposing of their bottles or pacifiers if we allow them to choose how they will do it. “In a few days we will put the pacifiers away. Would you like to put them away in the box or the paper bag?”

I understand parents saying that fairies came to take away the bottles (and I do believe in fairies!), but I believe in honesty for these important transitions. Telling our child the truth might feel scary to us, but it gives him a little more control, and will ultimately feel more ‘right’ for everyone.

Even with an infant, honest preparation eases a change. He may not understand all we say, but he will surely sense our intention: “Tomorrow you will meet Marina. She is someone new. Marina will come to take care of you sometimes.”

Bring it on and acknowledge.  Once we have committed to the change and followed through, all that is left to do is acknowledge whatever reactions and feelings our child has. Acknowledge that he misses his pacifier, his old nanny. Acknowledge that he doesn’t want to go to daycare, or to school, or on the vacation, but that he must. Encourage him to express any feelings of grief, loss, anger. Hold strong, but don’t try to talk your child out of his feelings. If you welcome them, they will pass more quickly, and your mission will be accomplished, your relationship of trust intact.



Twigtale offers helpful book templates (to be personalized by parents) for all the difficult transitional issues young children face and my readers can use the code: Janet10 to receive a 10% discount.

I highly recommend this inspiring story by Anna Banas at Every Moment Is Right: Dealing With Change

I share more about this respectful, honest approach to parenting in my new book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Roseann Murphy says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Preparation for change is essential. It certainly does not mean the changes will be easy, but the changes will be easier in the long run.

    Recently, one of my own children made a major change without a long “family discussion”. It is not that I wanted to know everything or put in “my two cents” (I would have liked that, but it was not up to me) What I would have liked is time to prepare, emotionally and physically. I am still not quite myself due to the abrupt change. But I am coping and I will adjust.

    I have the coping skills, children have not had the chance to develop these skills as yet. Preparation and truth…the only way to go.

    Thanks for another inspiring article.

  2. Roseann Murphy says:

    In my previous post I forgot to mention my “child” is an adult. I admire her conviction and ability to know when change was right for her.
    Janet, your article resonates the importance of preparation at any age.
    Being privvy to what is happening and time to prepare is so important.
    Thank you again for the opportunity to share and to remember RIE transcends all ages.

  3. One mother I was acquainted with was invited to a church wedding with her 2 year old. Not being religious, the 2 year old had never been in a church, and had no idea what to expect.

    The mother wrote a homemade book about them going to this wedding, and what was going to happen (stand, sit, listen to the loud organ music, watch the bride walk down the aisle, etc, etc), and they read it every evening for a while before the event.

    Once they were there the toddler was quiet and respectful, didn’t fidget through the longer parts, anticipated each next piece of the ceremony, and was not startled by any of the unusual sounds.

    I thought it was a creative way to prepare for a potentially confusing and upsetting situation.

    1. Olivia,

      Thanks so much for this story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced something similar with my own children. When children are well-prepared, they take enormous interest in almost any activity life has to offer. It’s really about respect. The child feels respected, important, included, when they are filled-in on the details of what will happen. That’s all they ask. When they feel that respect they rise to almost any occasion.

  4. Adding my agreement for your 3 suggestions also, Janet. (And, of course, a bit more.)

    With emphasis on routine, my recommendation for a 2.5 y/o is to give the news to them late, keeping daily life much the same up until close to the move. Time has a much different meaning to a toddler vs. an adult.

    I suspect the mother in your group was showing her own difficulty with the move long before it happened. I think young children pick-up emotional cues from their parents readily.

    I also think that this post implies more maturity than I expect in the third year of life.

    Olivia’s story of the homemade book is an age appropriate method of preparation – called a ‘social story’ in autism circles. Her story also reminds me that it is insufficient to tell a child to ‘be good’ in church. Much better is to say the positives (instead of don’t) – be quiet, watch, sit, read.

    Thanks for letting chime-in here, Janet.

  5. I’m a firm believer in preparing my children for what’s going to happen. The last time we moved my daughter (who was 4 at the time) had some potty accidents in the new house even though she had long since potty-trained. We thought we had made the move gradually enough (it took us almost a month to move completely!) that the kids wouldn’t be upset by it, but looking back I think the change is what caused my daughter to regress a little. We’re planning on moving before the end of this year and we’ve already started talking about it and preparing both of the kids for it. We think this time everything will go smoother. 🙂

    1. Hi Fran!

      I am so glad you shared this because it brings up something I wanted to include in my post, but I couldn’t fit it in easily. No matter how well prepared a child might be, it’s normal for him to regress during transitions like moving, a new sibling, etc. And it’s best to allow, and even welcome those regressions.

      I also wanted to add that young children can usually handle only one change at a time. It is a lot to ask of child to, for example, move houses and wean from the bottle or breast in the span of a few weeks!

      I think it is wonderful that you are preparing your children for moving and including them in the process as much as you can. I agree with Barbara’s comment above about not giving too much advance notice for toddlers regarding changes if possible, but I think we have to keep in mind that our children are very senstive to their parent’s feelings and the ‘vibe’ in the household. It is better for the child to understand the source of a parent’s stress or distraction, than it is to leave him uneasy, wondering what’s wrong.

  6. So, how much time is enough?

    We are moving next week with our 2 y/o. He is usually very good with changes and even though he has been potty training for a while I expect he will regress both with potty and with sleeping – we will transition from co-sleeping to his own room.

    It seems weird to me to start talking about moving, even a week in advance.

    1. I understand that it feels weird to talk about changes too early, but if you are dealing with all the aspects of moving (which I imagine you are) it would probably be good to include your boy. He picks up all of your stress, so rather than have it be mysterious and possibly disturbing to him, it’s better (I believe) to talk to him about it.

      Great that you are prepared for him to regress and accepting of it. I wouldn’t have him start in his own bed until you have had a few weeks in the new house. One transition at a time is easier for our sensitive toddlers. Please let me know how it goes!

  7. It is soooo important to be honest with your child! This is a great article.
    I know a family where the parents told their two year old that there were monsters in the old house and that was why they couldn’t go back to it – leaving me (as her teacher) in the difficult position of having to either tell her that her parents lied to her or let her and the other students believe that monsters are real. Plus, if there are monsters in her old house, what’s going to stop them from coming to her new house? Or her school? Or her car? And they won’t be able to tell her that monsters *aren’t* real because they’ve already told her they *are*.
    So thanks again for advocating honesty with young children – because they *do* deserve it, and because lying only causes more trouble for everyone in the long term.

    1. Wow. Megan, thanks so much for this illustration of the importance of honesty (and the amazing fabrications we resort to for an “easier” transition!).

  8. this is a great and very reassuring post after spending the last few months preparing dylan for the new baby.

    i’ve been so honest with him from the day we told him – and we talk about it almost every day, mostly at his initiation. i want him to be sure to know that sometimes it’s going to be hard and it’s okay to be sad or mad, and what to *really* expect of a newborn! i hear lots of moms say, “are you excited to play with the new baby?!”
    i just don’t want him to think he’s getting a playmate right away! we talk about what babies do, don’t do, what cries mean and don’t mean, that it’s going to be a new experience for everyone… no sugar coating here! though of course we talk about the wonderful parts, too… and he’s always been so fascinated with babies!

    earlier in the year, shortly after we started talking about the baby coming, i made him a book ( and i think it really helped him relate his story to what was going on with the pregnancy. and it helped him seeing a visual of all the things he did (and didn’t) do when he was a newborn.

    for the last couple months we’ve been doing LOTS of play around the subject… he’s wanting to play newborn baby and we’re acting out a lot of what we’ve talked about… i think it’s really helping him process his feelings – even feelings he may not totally be aware he’s feeling.

    anyways, great post – as always!
    xx sara

    1. Hi Sara! Oh, my gosh, I had no idea you had a blog! I love the book you made for dylan and I also love this birthday post: I’m definitely going to have to share that one on Facebook…and the book, too. Thank you so much for sharing! I feel like I got to know one of my favorite commenters a little better…and I’m looking forward to reading more. 🙂
      xx Janet

    2. Megan Meier says:

      Hi Sara, thanks for your post. I have a 3 yr old boy and expecting a baby girl in about 4 months. I’d love your idea about making a book to prepare him and it would be really helpful to reference your s but it seems I have to be invited to view the blog. Can you send me an invitation?
      Thanks for sharing!

  9. oh my word! what a *gigantic* compliment… so sweet… xx

  10. Dawn Olson says:

    Having worked with toddlers for the past 28 years I have become fully convinced that allowing and even encouraging toddlers to fully express their emotions is the healthiest way to support them.
    One of my families needed to have their elderly bulldog put to sleep and opted to tell their three year old that he’d merely gone to get his nails trimmed. When a few weeks passed and Falstaff didn’t return, they were startled to find their normally,placid boy strongly resisting getting his own nails trimmed. His intuition was spot on and I eventually broke the news to him myself in spite of his mother’s concern that he was too young to handle the idea of death.

  11. Do one year olds understand you when you say we are going to stop breastfeeding tonight? I see a lot of advice online to talk to kids, but do kids this young understand?

  12. Lola, I believe most one year olds would understand, but I would recommend a different way of sharing this change…something a bit more positive… Is this about weaning entirely or just not nursing during nightwaking?

  13. Erin Komar says:

    Hi Janet
    Thank you so much for writing this post and including links to other bloggers I could read to help me and my 1.5 year old transition into child care 2 days a week.
    I’m wanting to give my daughter’s part time carers some information so they understand not to distract her from her feelings and communicate respectfully with her.

    I haven’t found any other posts about day care or transitions and haven’t had any success finding RIE contacts in Australia.

    Are you able to direct me to any further information on transitions and/or communicating with day care providers?

    Thank you

  14. Toni & Indie says:

    Good afternoon from NZ.

    Thank you for sharing your stories and this article.

    In about two months, my LO (15months) will be moving to a new home (away from her cousins and aunty), and I will be going back to work full time. This is a HUGE change.

    Does anyone have any other advice?

    1. Selma Steenhuisen says:

      Hi, we recently moved countries, and one thing that worked really well for our three year old was to encourage him to make lists of things he needed to pack, then pack them together with him and gradually, so he still had things to play until the last day. And then again when we arrived I made sure his room was the first we decorated and I involved him in every step. It was tough, but once he slept in his new bed, the move was more final for him. It took a few weeks until he stopped asking when we’d move back. Five months later he still talks about the old house and daycare every single day. Good luck!

  15. but how do you help a 4 yo that just started preK, which was different from his all day daycare, which changed his daily schedule and he will be a big brother in two months? he has just started acting out.

  16. Thank you so much for this post. I’m expecting a baby in a few weeks, and I’ve had a lot of anxiety about how the transition will be for my daughter, who will be turning 3 several days after the baby’s arrival (we’ve of course been talking a lot about the baby and she talks to him and about him a lot). She’s a wonderful girl—very sweet and generally well-behaved (for a 2 year old). One thing that’s been on my mind is that she still uses a pacifier. She doesn’t use it at all at school, but at home she uses it for bedtime and nap, as well as some during the day. I know I should take it from her but it seems cruel to do that when she has such a big change coming up (additionally this week she’s going to transition from a crib to a bed). But if I wait until after the baby is born, it seems getting rid of the paci will be impossible because she’ll see the baby with one and be jealous. Do you have any recommendations? She normally does well with change, but she’s holding on to this paci for dear life.

    1. You’re so welcome, Kristen. I would limit the pacifier to bedtime and naps, but not try to wean her off completely at this time. I also wouldn’t assume that your infant will need a pacifier. In my experience with my 3 children they are completely unnecessary. Magda Gerber did not recommend them. Here’s a post on that that might interest you:

      And here’s a podcast that might be helpful:

      I hope you enjoy this exciting transition! I also have a ton of resources here on my site to help with your daughter’s adjustment. Please check out my topic: Siblings


      1. Thanks! This makes me feel better. I’ll let her keep it for now for bedtime only, and I appreciate your website in general. I tell everyone about it.

  17. I am a father of a seven year-old son. From his birth until his 7th birthday (last week), he has spent almost every night sharing a bed with my wife and I. We have been talking about moving to his own room to sleep for a few weeks. He accepted the idea, and I explained that I would be reading books with him like I always do. He asked me, “What if I crept into your bed a bit later?” I told him, “That’s not how it works.” The first night went well. The next day he said “Some of my friends had their own bed in their own room when they were in Year 1 last year.” The second and third nights were OK too. Then on the fourth night, he cried, and my wife lay down with him until he went to sleep. The next day, he told me “I want to sleep with you. I don’t like sleeping by myself. I was lonely.” I said. “You were feeling sad. Mummy came and cuddled you. You went to sleep.” Tonight, after reading him his stories, he told me, ” I might cry. I might not cry.” I told him, “We’re not far away. We’re just next door. OK?” “OK”, he said.
    I think this is harder for me than it is for him. I am happy that he is able to talk about his feelings with me. I hope I am approaching this the right way. I acknowledge his feelings and am confident when reinforcing the agreed routine. Any advice welcome.

  18. Willow Pryor says:

    First of all thank you so much Janet for your wisdom and generosity of spirit. I feel like I have created a very demanding 25month old who still wakes up and wants ‘boobie’ to get back to sleep often in the night. Jasper has a cot right beside our bed so crawls over whenever he wants. I realise it is too much to wean and change the sleeping situation all at once so I plan to wean him next week by going away for 4 days. When I am not home he does go to sleep with his father but they haven’t been alone all through the night before. Any suggestions and tips would be greatly appreciated. It is hard not to be hard On myself for not supporting Jasper to be able to sleep on his own and stay asleep before!

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