Helping Children Transition Through Big Changes

Moving to a new house? Switching schools? How can we help children transition through these big changes in life? Keep reading...

By Welby Pinney, MSSW, LCSW, Licensed Clinician | Mar 25, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

When I was asked if I’d share my thoughts on how to support children in the midst of big changes in life, I immediately thought of the recent movie, Inside Out. If you haven’t seen it, consider giving it a view. If you have seen it, you know it is a story about a young girl and her family’s move to another city.

One day the main character, a girl named Riley, finds herself with a new house, a new school, new children to meet, and the list goes on. Despite all this, her parents seem so excited! But what about the old friends, the old house, the old school, teachers, and neighborhood?  Everything familiar in Riley’s world gets left behind. What the parents see as new and exciting, Riley sees as scary and unpredictable.

For adults, big changes are usually planned. The adults involved typically have made the decision leading to the change, and they have had time to consider the implications. They have most likely made other big changes in their lives, and they can use their experiences to aid them through the next big change. Adults are able to draw upon prior experience, mentally rehearse how they will handle new situations, talk with other adults who have made similar changes, read blogs, etc. Adults have the ability to use abstract thinking to help them manage their emotions through changes. In essence, adults have a number of ways to increase their ability to predict how their lives will change.

Children, on the other hand, have a much harder time with abstract thought. Children might not understand why you would move to a new house when the one you have is perfectly fine. And children might not have any past experience to draw on to help them navigate the present experience.

With any change comes loss, both concrete and abstract. The children may be losing concrete things, such as their house, neighborhood, friends, or teachers. But they’re also losing abstract things. Since children are not the architects of big changes, they may have a sense of loss of control. Because the concept of control is an abstraction, it may be difficult for the child to address directly. But their behavior may give it away – anger or anxiety not otherwise explainable could be a sign that the child is feeling out of control.   

With big changes, there are losses for both children and adults. But unlike adults, children are less capable to use abstract thought to prepare themselves for what’s new. Children are likely to be more aware of what’s lost than what’s gained. The child’s sense of living in a predictable and familiar world is necessarily diminished. Coupled with their awareness of loss, big changes can be quite stressful for children.

So, how can parents and other adults assist children in managing their emotions when big changes happen?

One thing to keep in mind is the concept of being consistent. Maintaining routines is one way to help bring a sense of predictability into the child’s world. In fact, “be consistent” really ought to be stated as, “bring as much predictability into the child’s world as possible.” Nothing distresses humans as much as an unpredictable world. It doesn’t take much of that to become quite troubling.

Parents can draw attention to what hasn’t changed. Similarities between old and new can be noticed and commented upon. Similarities, and what hasn’t changed, might seem obvious to adults, but may not be to children.

Keeping an open dialogue with children can be comforting. It can be a simple as verbalizing, “We love each other, we are a team, we all have a variety of emotions about our big change.” This type of message can cut down on the sense of being emotionally alone.

Maintaining an empathetic connection with the child is very important. Parents should make time to touch base with the child, and listen to her thoughts and feelings. It’s always difficult to hear a child’s unhappy feelings, but not hearing them leaves the child alone to cope. In that case, she is both alone and having unhappy feelings – a double whammy. Happy times too, can be highlighted. If a spark is needed, playing “the glad game,” or some other way to focus on positive experiences and emotions, can be very supportive. And, if a child answers your question with, “I don’t know,” she may be telling you her truth.

Parents should make time to play together. I’ve heard it said that children spell love, “T-I-M-E.” Spending time playing might be especially meaningful during times of big changes.

Parents can arrange to preview a new situation with their children. This can be helpful for a child, just as it is for adults. Visiting a new house, school, or neighborhood can lead to some good conversations before a move, for example. Here’s one simple strategy you can use.

Maintain established connections if possible. Visit old friends, and have them visit you. Set up times to do video chat, if distance is a barrier. Keeping in touch with established friends can be a reminder of what hasn’t changed, and can be a comfort and joy in itself.

Refer to changes the child may be familiar with. Even young children have experienced some changes, and talking about how those previous changes went can be informative and reassuring. These can be as small as reminding a child about when she switched bedrooms, or moved up from kindergarten to first grade. Reminding her of previous transitions and reinforcing that she was successful in those changes can be comforting.

Big changes are a part of life, and all families will experience them. They may not be as big as a cross-country move, but maybe there’s a change in routine (mom used to pick up the kids, but she got a new job, so now dad does pick up), or a move from elementary to middle school, or a favorite restaurant that closes. Children will respond to changes in different ways, but remembering that they don’t have the context and experience that adults have will help us loop them in and stay patient and attuned to them as they process these big changes in life.