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I frequently see people around the web supporting various arguments with the statement "children need stability." Is there any evidence for this, and more importantly can there be such a thing as too much stability? Is there any evidence that lack of change leaves children unprepared for/unable to deal with small changes?

an example of a child reacting poorly to change: when a friend of mine was six years old her mother changed the plate over the light switch in the bathroom, the six year old girl was so upset about this change that she hid under the sink in the kitchen and refused to come out. to this day she gets very stressed during periods of change. is this genetic?

I realize I've just asked many questions, but they are all aspects of one:

How important is stability for children?

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Children will actively explore any boundaries that you give them. This can feel like a constant battle if you let it, but I think it's mostly a way to establish certainty—which I think they crave. They'll explore thier parameters, but you have to remember that they don't start off very smart. Which means that early on, they'll try a forbidden behavior because it's a different day. Or because they have on a new shirt. Or maybe Mom forgot about it. It takes constant reinforcement, but eventually, consistency pays off with better-behaved children.

And while your example of hiding under the sink is extreme, they really don't take surprise changes well. Change is a part of life, though, so it's important to teach them that things change. Depending on the sensitivity of the child, a little preparation can go a long way. Involve them in changes to their environment as much as you can. Let them watch you change the light switch and tell them why you want to change it. This isn't so much about giving them control (they can be tyrants if you let them) as it is about letting them understand why things change and giving them a chance to prepare while teaching them that adapting to change is an important skill that they can learn.

Not all inconsistency is bad, though. One thing we stumbled onto early on is to leverage inconsistency in our favor. While we never give in to a fit or tantrum, once or twice, every now and then, if a child takes a "no" well and doesn't whine or fight, we'll countermand the negative. "No, dear, I'm saving those ice cream sandwiches for later." can easily be countered fifteen minutes later with "you know, you took that so well that you can have the ice cream sandwich." The child learns that they can change your mind with good behavior and they never change your mind with bad behavior. And when people ask why our kids seldom talk back or whine, we tell them it's because we're inconsistent...

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+1 for letting them sometimes earn a removed treat back by being good. This really works well! –  Rory Alsop Jun 3 '11 at 23:41
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Example you give is a clinical case and has nothing to do with normal behavior.

As for stability, it's really more about the family, not the surroundings or things. In my experience normal child will have no problem changing over to completely new house in different country even, as long as parents are with them.

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Your friend's case is unusual, maybe the result of something like obsessive compulsive disorder. In general, kids are much more resilient and adaptable than adults usually give them credit for. When you change something on them, they explore their boundaries under the new set of circumstances in an almost methodical way if you stop to observe. This can be stressful while they figure out their boundaries and where they fit in, but once they figure it out, they are fine. They then know how to adjust their behavior to fit the circumstances. This takes longer for some children than others, but they eventually all get there.

Where problems come in is when the circumstances are seemingly identical to the child, but expectations change. If Grandma lets him raid the cookie jar freely, but Mom gets angry when she catches him, he will be confused at first, but quickly figure out he needs to add the variable of who is in charge to his mental model, and he adapts easily to the change. However, if Mom punishes him harshly sometimes and lets it slide other times with no explanation, he has a difficult time processing it. Likewise, a big change like moving is traumatic, but kids eventually adjust and move on with their lives. However, if a child never knows when he will be moving again with little to no notice, he might develop some unhealthy coping strategies to try to maintain stability, like never trying to make friends.

In other words, when people talk about kids needing stability, they don't mean never changing anything, they mean when the inputs the child can observe and comprehend are the same, he can depend on the outputs being the same.

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