Moving, changing schools, divorce, loss of a loved one or a pet, break-ups. Throughout our lives we experience a wide array of major life changes, which are often referred to as “transitions.” (Although the term “transition” may apply to a few different scenarios, I’ll be using it to describe a big change in a person’s life—intentional or not.)
Transitions are a natural part of life as we move from one season to the next, reaching milestones, and becoming who we are meant to be. Many transitions are beautiful, life-giving experiences like getting married, having a child, or starting a new career. Other unwelcomed and/or unforeseen transitions, such as death, divorce, and loss, make life difficult to cope with. For children experiencing such transitions, it can be difficult to navigate life and figure out how to manage the confusing feelings and circumstances they’re experiencing.
Why are transitions so tough on kids?
If you’re a parent, you probably already know how important consistency and stability is for your children. Young children especially feel safe and secure when they know what to expect from Mom and Dad, their daily routines, and their surroundings. Part of this is because stability allows children to have autonomy and a sense of control over their environments. Knowing what to expect helps kids feel a sense of calm and helps keep anxiety at bay. Households that are stable and consistent provide kids the opportunity to increase their sense of self through having responsibility and independence—both vital in developing into a healthy adult.
Even though it can’t always be prevented, a big change can feel like an upheaval to the consistency they so crave and need. Transitions are difficult for kids, because the unknown causes them anxiety, and a prolonged state of change or transition usually lacks stability. Ever wonder why your child asks you so many questions when you’re going somewhere new? It’s difficult to enter into a situation that you know nothing about, and anxiety increases if there are too many unknowns. This is the effect so frequently produced by transitions.
Instability and uncertainty lead to anxiety. Anxiety and stress produce more of the hormone cortisol, which can result in negative physical and mental health side effects such as mood changes and lack of sleep. It might be no surprise that if your child is going through big life changes, you notice behavioral problems at school or at home, frequent mood swings, and social problems.
How can I help my child manage transitions well?
You’ve probably already guessed that if stability is so important, it plays a major role in helping children through transitions too. Establishing a known and consistent routine is an essential step in easing your child’s transition. For example, a family going through a divorce should lay out a very predictable routine for time with Mom and time with Dad, including when and where they’ll spend time with each parent. A child whose family has just moved to a new place should have a well-established routine upon arrival to the new home, while also maintaining some of the familiarity of the routine from their “old” home. Providing as much consistency and predictability as possible can help ease your child’s anxiety about the changes.
Of course, life is full of unpredictable situations and we can’t always tell our kids what to expect, and we can’t protect them from everything. Children need to learn that throughout life they won’t have the option of having total control over their situation, while developing skills to manage stress from feeling out of control. In these moments, coaching your child on how to deal with the unpredictable can help them add some “tools” to their “toolbox” of coping strategies.
Remind your child that the transition is hard for you too and that you will get through this together as a family. Give them your emotional support. Help your child identify what they can control and what they can’t; come up with strategies to cope with the uncontrollable, such as mindfulness, open communication with family or friends, and practicing gratitude. Try to give your child options when possible, which will allow them to feel they have some sense of choice in the midst of things they can’t control.
And most importantly, be patient with your child. It takes time for anyone to adjust to big life changes. Give your child a safe space to talk about their feelings about the transition, and be patient with the process. And be patient with yourself, too, as you manage parenting through a transition.
If your family is experiencing a major life change such as divorce or separation, death and loss, moving, or changing schools, consistent counseling can be a great resource for your child. Feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute consultation to discuss getting support for your family during a transition and to see if we’d be a good counseling fit. And be sure to read my other posts for more tips on raising emotionally healthy children!