Wellbeing

How to help my child cope with big life changes

It is inevitable that things in life change and it can often be very challenging for children to manage. When children experience structure and stability, they feel safe, but when changes such as divorce, change in school, arrival of a new sibling or moving house occurs, it can very scary. As children face new changes, they have the opportunity to learn new skills and strategies to manage the changes around them and it helps to build resilience, but they need extra support in order to navigate through it. They need support in terms of how to manage their new feelings, in understanding and adjusting to the changes and in the acquisition of new skills.

Parents can support their child in this process in many ways. Here are seven suggestions

Give your child time to prepare

Naturally, it is not always possible to give your child time to prepare for unexpected events such as death of a pet or family. However, when preparation is an option, give your child advance notice of an upcoming change so that they can process and accept the changes and familiarise themselves with the unfamiliar.

Listen to Their Concerns

It is natural for a parent to focus on the positive aspects of a big life change, but it is important to take time to listen to your child’s concerns and questions that they might have and to address the emotions that they are experiencing. By doing this, you validate and acknowledge their feelings. Children often just need understanding and empathy. In other words, they need to be “met where they are at”. It is sometimes appropriate to focus on the positives and to try to distract them and shield them from their emotions, but when parents are too quick to apply this approach, it might make your child feel as their feelings and opinions are not important.

Read books about big life changes

There are many children’s books that can help children cope with major life changes. Here are a few examples.

Divorce:

A new baby in the family:

Moving:

These books help children understand that they are not alone in experiencing this type of change. The books also provide encouraging words, helpful advice, and the knowledge that everything will work out for the best in the end.

Keep routines the same

Consistency and stability is very important during times of change and by sticking to routine and usual schedules such as bedtimes, mealtimes, family rituals, toys etc., helps a child to manage the major change with much more ease. Additional changes might enhance their feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. In addition to keeping the routines the same, getting plenty of rest and continuing to eat a nutritious diet helps your child feel happier and calmer. 

Provide connection and play

It is important to maintain the bond and connection with your child. They should have certainty that their relationship with you has not been compromised, irrespective of the changes around them. They need to know that  you will be there – no matter what happens. It can make a significant difference if parents can set ten minutes per day aside to give their child undivided attention and affection and play with them during this time.

Give them choices and ask for help

Very often, when children experience big life change, they feel that they have no control. If parents put things in place to make them feel valuable, responsible and helpful, they might feel that they are part of the decision-making process and that their contributions are important. It gives them some sense of agency when their inputs are valued.

Talk about other changes

It is important to discuss (or even draw) your child’s life path so far and a focus of conversation can be the changes that they have already experienced. They may have already experienced starting school, getting a new pet, joining a sports team, making friends etc. By talking to them about why these changes happened, how it affected their lives in a positive or negative way, what we have learned from these experiences and how we got through it, can prepare a child to be stronger and more resilient in future. A picture of “before and after”, illustrating the changes can also be helpful. This can put the new challenges into perspective so that they do not look as scary and overwhelming as they did at the start.

Change is inevitable and generally uncomfortable to go through. The good news is that children are generally tough. They can handle difficult situations successfully and they will eventually adjust to new situations as long as parents guide and support them along the way with love, compassion and understanding.

Reference: Cullins, A. 2019. How to help my child cope with big life changes. Big Life Journal. Retrieved November 2019 from: https://biglifejournal.com/blogs/blog/help-kids-cope-big-life-changes

Annecke Redelinghuys
School Counsellor