How to help children deal with transitions and change

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Have you heard the expression ‘change is the only constant in life’?

As adults, we’re pretty used to this, on a micro level, at least. We’re accustomed to trains sometimes running late, computers freezing, being caught in the rain, our favourite cafe selling out of the muffins we like, a friend cancelling a dinner date at the last minute or a million other minor derailments in our days. They’re frustrating, but we don’t dwell on every one. There’s no time and no point.

But for children, these little changes can be big, and they can bring big feelings with them. Children don’t have the lived experience of navigating the stream of small adjustments adults make in their lives each day, so they don’t have perspective or context when these things occur. For some children, there are no ‘little’ or ‘big’ changes: it’s all just change and it’s all hard.

The changes we’re currently going through are not only constant, but very impactful. Children are dealing with change in areas of their lives that were relatively stable before the pandemic. Imagine, even six months ago, the thought of everyone schooling and working at home for two months! Even in our adult consciousness, it’s been a huge and unexpected event. Some children have seemed to take it all in their stride, calmly adjusting to the changed circumstances with equanimity while we grown-ups panic-buy pasta, stockpile toilet paper and bake more bread than we could ever eat. Other children are more vocal about the upheaval in their lives and how upsetting that’s been for them. Still more children vacillate between those two states and everything in between.

But, whether or not your children have been outwardly demonstrating their difficulty in coping with all the changes that have occurred, it’s pretty likely that parts of it have been challenging for them. Whether they keep it under wraps or shout it into your ear with a megaphone, it’s there. And, furthermore, it’s not going away. The world has changed, and it’s going to keep changing. So, how can we help children deal with it?

Here are some ideas:

Remind them how they’ve coped with change before

In the moment, your child might be hyper-focused on what’s going on right now, but gently drawing their attention to other times they’ve experienced change and gotten through it can help them see that they are resilient and there’s proof that they’re capable of managing.

Reassure them that they’re not alone

When children are going through change or transition, they can get stuck in their own head and start to believe that they need to manage it by themselves. Remind them that you’re available to help them and they don’t have to fly solo.

Explain what’s happening in their brains

With any sort of change, children may experience a range of emotions that are pretty confusing for them. That can be really unsettling, so talking to them about their amygdala, the fight or flight response and what this means can help them understand why they’re reacting the way they are.

Encourage them to take a break

When moving through a period of change is causing big emotions, encourage your child to stop trying to figure things out and just do something they enjoy. This will give them a chance to self-regulate and then return to dealing with it all when their batteries have recharged.

Help them focus on the things they can control 

So much of the change that children go through is beyond their control. Whether it’s changes in themselves, their bodies, their lives, homes or families, one of the hardest parts of coping with change can be feeling helpless in the face of it. While this may be true, we can always control our own responses, and helping children work out how to do this can be empowering and a good way to help shift their focus.

Talk about the change

When your child is going through change, it can be helpful to have open conversations about it so they can air their concerns and raise their difficulties. This also gives you the chance to put things in perspective for them. Talk about how long the change is likely to last and what the best and worst things that could happen are.

Keep checking in

Even if your child is of the variety we mentioned earlier who seems unfazed by any big shifts in their world, don’t assume that they will remain unfazed throughout, or that their capacity to manage it is a constant or a given. Have you ever kept it together through an awful day but then lost it when you stubbed your toe? The same thing can happen to children!

Facilitate professional support

If you or your child thinks that they could benefit from some professional support, go for it. Especially when the change or transition is affecting your whole family, an ‘outsider’ can be a safer, easier and less complicated source of advice and guidance.

Give them some predictability

When everything is in flux, it can help to have some things that always remain the same. Whether it’s how you say good night or what’s for dinner on a Tuesday, elements of routine can provide comforting scaffolding in unstable times.

As with just about everything involving children, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to helping them cope with change, and it will depend on the circumstances and on your child.