Helping Kids Cope With Change

Tips to help kids navigate life's twists and turns with confidence and care.
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Whether it’s a best friend moving across the country, the addition of a new sibling, or the switch to a new school, change touches every child’s life. How a child deals with change can predict future success. A report from Education for All Global Monitoring shows that children who successfully cope with transitions in their early years, such as the transition to kindergarten, are more likely to sail through transitions later in life. Feeling successful in an early transition can influence whether kids approach the future with dread or self-assurance. Here are some tips on how to raise kids who can navigate life’s twists and turns with confidence and care. 

Early Years
Expressive Play

Small children may not have the words to tell you when they’re struggling with a transition, says Leslie Petruk, a play therapist at The Stone Center for Counseling and Leadership in Charlotte. Regressive behaviors like potty-training accidents, extra clinginess or antisocial behavior like hitting can signal that a child needs extra help coping with change. To help little ones express themselves, Petruk uses “nondirective play therapy,” in which kids play with a wide variety of toys, from aggressive figures like sharks or snakes to more nurturing play things like teddy bears and koalas, in open- ended play. She also recommends parents use the M.U.S.H.Y. strategy: meet, understand, see, hear and avoid yelling.

“First, meet your child where they are emotionally, calmly getting on their level,” Petruk says. “Then, communicate understanding (‘You are really angry right now’), and show them that you see and hear them (‘Your clenched fists show me that you’re mad, and I hear that you don’t want to go to school. Let’s see if we can come up with a way to make this easier for you.’) If you can do all of this without yelling, you’ll likely calm the storm and gain cooperation.” 


Elementary Years
Routine Scene

Life’s transitions mean shaking up the daily routine. Switching to a new school may mean waking up earlier. Leveling up in a club or sport may mean a more intense practice schedule. Change that disrupts a family’s schedule can be especially tough on kids, says Abraham Bartell, director of pediatric psychiatry at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital in Valhalla, New York.

“Routine and structure are very important to all of us, but especially to kids,” he says. Preserving the daily routine can help kids cope with life changes. Maintain a steady bedtime within 30 minutes, be sure the family sits down at a consistent time for dinner at least a few nights per week and preserve weekend rituals like a Sunday afternoon walk around the neighborhood. Consider marking the transition, however, by creating new routines and rituals. Support your child’s efforts to wake up earlier with a new alarm clock and a sticker chart, or build in an extra few minutes of parent-child story time at the days’ end to boost bonding and to help your child unwind. 


Teen Years
Follow, Don’t Force

When a flare-up of defiant behavior, academic troubles or mood swings signals that a teen is battling with change, take heart: Your teen is really dealing with a loss and needs time to cope.

“Remember that transition is about dealing with change, and change is a euphemism for loss,” Bartell says. Ensure that your teen gets enough face time with you. With change comes a flurry of activity and distraction for parents, and kids may lose time with a parent that they once enjoyed, he says. Carve out one-on-one time with your teen whenever you can, even if it’s something as simple as going to get a milkshake after dinner.

Communication is the key to helping teens cope with change. “I often use the ‘Four Fs’ of communication: Don’t force it, don’t forbid it, follow their lead and control the flow of information,” Bartell says.

During transitions, kids may seem to overload and shut down, but keeping an open flow of communication can help flip the switch back toward emotional equilibrium.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and family journalist and mom of three.