Helping Children Cope with Major Life Changes

For children and adults alike, change is an inherent part of life. All of us, at various points in time, will likely have to grapple with both minor and major adjustments to our lives and routines. While minor changes - deviations from the daily schedule, a new location for a regular activity, a new coach or babysitter - can place short-term stress on children, major life changes - relocating to a new school, a new house, or a new city, for example - can be significantly disorienting and are likely to require more intensive support, even when the changes are fundamentally positive in nature.

Research has found that when left unresolved or unaddressed, life changes can become an impactful factor contributing to psychological distress. As such, learning how to cope with change is a critical skill that can have significant bearing on a person’s happiness and resilience as they grow older. While some children might naturally be more adaptable than others, all children can benefit from valuable coaching when facing significant life changes to help equip them with the capacity to successfully navigate changes within their own lives.

For parents who are supporting their children in navigating a life change, consider the following strategies:

Practice self-care. Although parents often prioritize attending to their children’s well-being above their own, it is important to remember that significant life and family changes can be just as stressful for parents as they are for children. When parents are overwhelmed, emotionally drained, or struggling to adjust to new contexts and realities, it can foster increased anxiety in children. As parents seek to model how to constructively adjust to change, it is essential for them to attend to their own health and well-being, and ensure that they are feeling well-supported and resourced in their transition.

Prepare children in advance. Not all changes can be foreseen; however, whenever possible, provide children with notice and information in advance of the change. Advance notice helps children to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves and allows them the opportunity to ask questions before going through the transition itself. Further, visualization exercises, functioning as a sort of ‘mental dress rehearsal,’ can be beneficial in preparing for the various steps involved within a transition. Although advance notice will not necessarily reduce the emotional gravity of a major life transition, it will afford children a little bit of extra time as they begin the adjustment process.

Invite and answer questions. As already noted, one of the critical elements of preparing for a change is having questions heard and answered. When gearing up for a significant life change (e.g., a relocation), children will often have many questions they will want to discuss to help them develop a clearer understanding and prepare for what is to come. If children have questions, try to provide them with clear and thoughtful responses. If children do not have any questions or do not appear to be engaging with the impending change, parents can gently let their children know that they are available to talk and check in periodically to proactively invite questions and discussion.

Empathize with complex feelings. Change, by its very nature, is a complex phenomenon, as it brings with it the promise of a new beginning along with the sadness of an ending. Most significant life changes are accompanied by a range of emotions, including excitement, anxiety, sadness, and confusion. When grappling with an impending change, it is important for children to have the opportunity to explore and experience their full range of emotions, and to have those emotions acknowledged and understood. While it can be valuable to encourage children to focus on positive elements of the change, it is essential for children to know that feelings of anxiety and grief are also healthy, understandable, and acceptable. Simply listening as children express their feelings can be a very constructive process for children and parents alike. If parents are concerned that their children’s emotions may be shifting beyond healthy levels of intensity, it is recommended that they reach out to a professional for further guidance and support.

Try to uphold a consistent routine. As human beings, we crave certainty in our lives. Many children gravitate toward routine because it provides them with a sense of safety and stability. Significant life changes can feel scary to children in part because they pose a threat to what is known and predictable. While significant life changes will inevitably disrupt routine, try to uphold consistency to the greatest extent possible. This might include maintaining regular waking and bed times and upholding long-standing family traditions such as movie nights or special weekend breakfasts. Until a more global sense of routine can be re-established, preserving small elements of consistency can help children to maintain a sense of comfort and safety in their lives.

Anticipate pushback. Even when parents do their utmost to support their children, children will sometimes push back as they struggle with a perceived loss of control in the face of change. Ultimately, learning how to cope with change is a challenging process. Parents are encouraged to continue empathizing, answering questions, and rebuilding routine, as they support their children in recalibrating. If parents feel confused, unsure of how to proceed, or develop concerns about how their children may be coping with change, consultation with a professional can help to determine next steps.

Soraya Lakhani is a registered psychologist, and the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology, yellowkite.ca, located in Calgary. Soraya is a thought leader on parenting and child psychology and her work has frequently appeared on CBC, Global, and other major media outlets. 

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