Help Kids & Teens Cope With Changes & Transitions

Mom holding baby with older sibling offering baby a stuffed animal toy, smiling

Change is a normal part of life. Starting or ending a school year, welcoming a new sibling into the family, moving—any change or transition can bring up stress and a range of emotions for kids (and adults, too). As tough as they may be to navigate, times of change can be an opportunity for kids and teens to build resilience and learn how to handle life’s ups and downs.

We can’t prepare for everything in life, but, when we know a change is coming, it can be helpful to prepare kids ahead of time. This gives them time to think about it, ask questions and express their feelings. Here are a few things to keep in mind when giving kids a heads-up about change:

  • Be honest and upfront about what’s happening so they have an idea of what to expect.
  • Use clear, developmentally appropriate language to make sure they understand.
    • Try using books with younger kids to help them understand concepts about big life changes (e.g., becoming a sibling, moving, changing schools).
    • If possible, try showing kids what the change will look like so they can become familiar with it ahead of time (e.g., visiting a new neighborhood, touring a new school).
  • Encourage questions, listen and follow their lead. When we listen, we’re able to determine how much they understand what’s happening, and we’re also able to learn what’s on their mind so we can better support them.
  • Practice roleplaying by encouraging kids to act out their responses to possible situations.

Excited, confused, annoyed, scared, happy, sad. Change can bring up all kinds of emotions for kids (and adults, too). Talking openly about feelings can help them cope. Try these tips to encourage kids to share how they feel about change:

  • Help kids name their feelings. Sometimes we’re hesitant to talk about feelings because we’re worried it’ll make things worse. But naming our feelings can actually make them feel more manageable and less overwhelming. Kids may benefit from using feelings charts to help them label their feelings.
  • Validate all feelings. Every child responds differently to change.
    • Let them know that it’s OK and normal to feel whatever they feel, even if it’s different than how you feel.
    • Be careful not to minimize or dismiss their feelings by saying things like, “You’re fine! There’s nothing to worry about.” Instead, validate their feelings by saying things like, “It’s normal to feel nervous about starting a new school.” Or, “It makes sense you feel sad about moving away from your friend.”
  • Normalize mixed feelings by letting them know that it’s OK to feel more than one feeling at a time. For example, “It’s normal to feel both excited and nervous about starting something new.”
  • Encourage ongoing expression of feelings by teaching kids how to identify and express their feelings. They can do this by talking to people they trust, journaling, creating art, etc.

As tempting as it is to shield kids and teens from things that are overwhelming or scary, it doesn’t prepare them for the unavoidable challenges they’ll face in life. Instead, use these moments to help kids practice healthy coping skills they can use now and in the future. Here are a few things to keep in mind when teaching healthy coping skills to kids:

  • Encourage kids to create a coping skill toolbox of different strategies they can use to take care of themselves and feel better. Deep breathing, going for walks, listening to music—the options are endless!
  • Prioritize healthy habits and make sure the entire family is getting quality sleep, eating balanced meals, moving their bodies and expressing their feelings during times of change (and always). Keep in mind, kids are looking to adults for guidance, so it’s important that we practice role modeling. If we actively take care of ourselves by prioritizing healthy habits, they’ll learn to do the same.
  • Make time for fun and connection. When we’re in the middle of a change, it’s common to feel like there’s no time for fun. But it’s important to create a sense of balance. When we have fun and experience joy, it can help us feel less stressed, more connected and hopeful. Even on the busiest days, be intentional about creating time for connection and fun, even if just in brief moments at the dinner table, on the ride or walk to school, or before bed.
  • Teach kids to focus on what they can control. When we go through changes, it’s common for kids to feel they have no control. Teach them the power of focusing on what’s within their control by giving them choices as much as possible. For example, provide them with simple options throughout the day:
    • “Do you want to wear your red or blue sneakers?
    • “Would you rather have an apple or banana for snack?”
    • “Your choice! Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders?”
    • “After dinner, would you rather go for a walk or play a game together?”

Everyone benefits from consistency, especially during times of change. It can be comforting for kids to keep at least one simple routine that lets them know what to expect. Having regular family meals or following a bedtime routine (e.g., bath, brush teeth, read, lights out at the same time) are ways to maintain consistency and help kids feel safe and secure.

It can also be helpful to avoid adding unnecessary stressors during a time of change. If something can wait (e.g., potty training, starting a new sport or activity), consider delaying it until a more stable time.

There’s one thing we can expect during times of change: the unexpected. Keep in mind that things probably won’t go as planned, and that it’s important to be flexible and make adjustments as needed. If adjustments are needed, as best as possible, talk with kids beforehand so they know what to expect. Throughout it all, reassure them, be there for them and support them throughout the process.

No matter how much we prepare for it, coping with change can be hard. If you think your child is struggling more than they should, it’s impacting their everyday functions or you’re just not sure, don’t hesitate to consult with your child's pediatrician and a licensed mental health professional for guidance and support.