How to help kids cope with major life changes
It can be hard for us as parents to know how to help kids with major life changes. But these changes and transitions are a part of life for everyone. Things like moving house, the death of loved ones, divorce, changing schools, or welcoming a new baby to the family, can all be hugely stressful for kids. And since their major life changes are often pretty major for us parents too, we often have no idea how to best help our kids though them.
But with a little bit of support from you, you CAN get through these difficult periods. In fact, these transition periods can even be an opportunity for learning, strengthening connections and building resilience and self confidence in your child.
8 tips to help kids with major life changes
1. Manage your own emotions
You child will be looking to you for cues about how to respond to the situation. If they see you panicking, they will believe the situation is scary. If you are not coping well, they will believe they are unable to cope with the situation too. So it’s important that you find ways to process your own worries and concerns about the transition. It’s absolutely fine to let your child know how you feel of course, but you also need to show them how you’re managing those emotions. They need to know that you can handle your emotions so they feel safe to trust you with theirs too.
2. Allow them time to prepare
Of course, sometimes big life changes happen without warning. But if you have the chance to prepare your child before hand, it’s important that you do. Let them know ahead of time what will happen. Help them understand what to expect. Take them on a tour of their new school. Introduce them to their new teacher. Talk to them about how things will change when their new sibling is born. Show them their new house and their new bedroom and talk to them about what will happen on moving day. Humans find the unknown scary. Reduce their anxiety by giving them the details.
3. Let them be mad
Or sad. Or frustrated. Or disappointed. Or however they feel. It’s important that we acknowledge the difficulty of the situation and all of the big feelings that go along with big changes. Often as parents we feel tempted to tell our children not to worry. We insist that it will all be ok. That they needn’t be concerned. We try to shield them from pain by convincing them that it’s “No big deal” or by distracting them from their emotions.
We often believe that focusing too much on the difficult emotions will make them worse – but the opposite is true. When our kids feel like we understand their big emotions, they feel validated and they are able to process the emotions and let them go. Try saying something like this: “Moving houses is hard. I know you’re sad to be leaving your friends and I’m sad too. We will do this together.”
4. Be consistent
Wherever possible, try to stick to your child’s normal routine. This will help your child feel safe and secure and prevent any further stress. Things like mealtimes together, your regular bedtime routine, and your usual family traditions and rituals will be especially important during times of major change. They create a steady, predictable rhythm for your child – dependable anchors that they can rely on when everything else is changing around them.
5. Focus on connection
When your child’s life feels unfamiliar and scary, what they need most of all is you. They need to know that despite all of the other changes happening in their life, you and your relationship with them will remain the same. This is a time to really focus on connecting with your child and filling their cup. Yes, it may be hard for you while you deal with your own emotions around the situation. But if you can spare even 10 minutes a day to give your child focused, undivided attention, it will help to make the transition so much smoother for both of you. Play their favourite game, read a book together, cook their favourite meal, have a dance party. Whatever it is, make it all about your child.
6. Get them involved
Help your child feel a sense of control and autonomy by involving them in the process as much as possible. Changing schools? Take them with you to choose their new school bag or lunch box. Moving house? Let them arrange their new room themselves. Allow them to choose some new bed sheets or the paint colour for the walls. Is there a new sibling on the way? Ask them to buy a small gift for the baby. Get them involved in preparing the baby’s room. Ask for their input in naming baby.
Having big changes happening around you and feeling like you have no say in that, feels really disempowering. It may leave your child feeling helpless and out of control. Giving them real, meaningful tasks to complete and allowing them to help, allows them take back some control. It helps them feel like they are a valued member of the team.
7. Teach them coping skills
We can’t help kids cope with major life changes without offering them some strategies and coping skills they can use when they begin to feel overwhelmed by their big feelings. It will build up their resilience and self confidence by helping them feel capable. And, they learn that they can impact the outcome of an event and how they feel by using these skills. This is how we truly empower kids.
Now, I like to give kids a range of strategies to use so they can choose the ones that best fit their specific needs, which is why I created (and use with my own kids) the Mindful Little Calm Down Cards. They include more than 60 strategies your child can use to help them self regulate when they are getting overwhelmed. Different strategies will be effective in different situations, at different times and for different children. So I recommend you help your child practice lots of different strategies until they find the most useful ones for them.
I also love to teach kids mindful breathing strategies. A few rounds of mindful breathing can very quickly deescalate a situation and help your child feel calm and regulated again. The key to using these strategies though, is to use them at the right time. Wait too long, and your child is in full blown meltdown mode and the strategies won’t work. So I suggest you work on building self awareness with your child first, and that you practice mindful breathing strategies while your child is feeling calm and regulated, before you work on using them in the moment. You’ll find some super fun, kid friendly mindful breathing exercises in my Mindful Little Breathing Bundle.
8. Expect challenging behaviour
When children are stressed, they don’t always use their words to communicate with us. Instead, we will more than likely see changes in their behaviour. These are the signs of an overwhelmed nervous system that is struggling to cope with the demands of the situation. It’s not intentional. It’s not personal. It’s simply a reflection of what is happening inside of them. Try to remember this when they are having what feels like their 200th meltdown for the day. Or when they are hitting their sister. Or telling you they hate you.
What you’re seeing is stress behaviour. Punish them for what is a stress behaviour and you will only add further stress to their already overloaded nervous system. They don’t need punishment. They don’t need a firmer hand. They don’t need more expectations and rigidity. What they need is empathy and understanding. To know they are loved and accepted just as they are. So try to see things from their perspective and lead with kindness and compassion.
And remember, it wont last forever. You will all adjust to your new normal in time. And if you focus on the tips above, you will come out of this transition period even stronger and more connected than ever before.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.