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5 Tips to Help Kids and Teens Manage Big Transitions

This article was previously published on Atrium Health's Daily Dose

Change can be hard for everyone, but it's especially tough for children. Here's how to help them get through it.

Jerrika Swartz knows just where her two-year-old daughter, Landry, got her personality from: Jerrika herself.

"Landry is sentimental – like her mama. And she likes structure – like her mama," Jerrika, an Atrium Health teammate on its communications team says. So, as the family prepares to move to a new house, Jerrika wants to ease the stress for a small child who doesn't like change. To help, she's minimizing the changes Landry will experience amid the move. That means Landry's switch from a crib to a toddler bed happened a few weeks early and her potty training will wait until the new house feels more like home. It also means that Landry's most beloved possessions – including her toy kitchen and Rompy, the stuffed dog – will be the last items packed and the first to be unpacked.

"Landry's already asked where her things will be, and we always reply: 'Wherever you want them,'" Jerrika says. "We want her to be involved in this process as much as possible."

Landry's far from alone in her love of structure. Big changes are hard for everyone, but they're especially challenging for children and teenagers who haven't developed advanced coping strategies yet. Here, Amii Steele, PhD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Psychology & Neuropsychology with Atrium Health Levine Children's, offers five tips to help parents and guardians make transitions easier for children of all ages, whether it's a toddler facing a move or a teenager preparing to leave for college.

Tip 1: Listen To and Validate Feelings

Don't just tell children and teens that everything will be fine. Ask them how they're feeling and take time to listen to their concerns. It's crucial for kids to understand that the adults in their lives are there to listen to them and understand them.

"Maintaining good lines of communication between parents and children through a transition is key," Steele says. "Let children know you will give them time to listen to their concerns, to validate their concerns and to let them know you'll be there to talk to – no matter what, even as other parts of their lives are changing."

You can even let kids know if you deal with similar challenges and how you cope with them. For example, if a child is nervous about starting a new school, you might share how you handle times when you feel nervous. Maybe you can share calming strategies with them and do them together, such as deep belly-breathing, listening to music or taking a walk.

Tip 2: Remind Kids of Past Wins

If a child admits they're nervous about making new friends, remind them of a past time when they made a new friend, perhaps at a camp or in the neighborhood. If a child is nervous about starting high school or college, remind them how well they did when they started another school.

"A lot of times, when kids are worried, anxious or in a negative head space, it can be hard for them to remember the successes they've already had," Steele says. "Call their attention to some of the transitions and changes they've already successfully gotten through in the past."

Teach kids that stress is a normal part of life transitions and there are helpful ways to manage stress. Each time we navigate a transition, we can learn new coping strategies to make the next one easier. When you reflect on past successes, ask them: What made that go well last time? How might those strategies help in this situation?

Tip 3: Make Books and Videos Your Allies

You have each note of "Let It Go" engrained in your memory. You'll never forget a word of "We Don't Talk About Bruno" (no, no, no). Parents understand how much kids love repetition – so why not use books and movies as tools to help them understand transitions?

"Kids gain mastery over their world through repeated exposure. If you have time, use this concept during your transition," Steele says. "There's a book about most things – moving to new schools, new towns, dealing with family changes. The library can be helpful and, sometimes, you can find videos on YouTube of people reading books too."

Tip 4: Maintain Routine as Much as Possible

"Kids thrive on consistency and routine," Steele says. "Try to keep some routines the same, even if other things are becoming different."

For example, if a child starts a new school, try to maintain the habits they had at their previous school. If kids are in the habit of picking out their outfits or helping pack their lunch the night before, continue those routines. If a teen enjoyed dance or soccer in high school, perhaps they can find a club or class at their college to continue that.

"Structure feels safe for children and it allows them to use their coping resources as much as they can," Steele says.

Tip 5: Try to Give Kids Choices

To help children feel a sense of agency over their lives, allow them to make age-appropriate choices, when possible. For example, if a small child is moving to a new school, consider allowing them to choose their own backpack or their first-day outfit. If a family is moving to a new house, ask children to choose the paint colors for their new rooms. If a new baby is coming into the family, ask older kids to choose a present or book for their new sibling.

"Giving kids choices can be really helpful. It gives them a sense of control over their world, even through big changes," Steele says.

For older kids, empower them to make choices and take control over their routine. For teenagers preparing to leave for college, for example, prepare them early to handle day-to-day living independently. For example, make sure they know how to handle basic financial tasks, do laundry, schedule refills on medications and make appointments for medical care. Also teach them that gaining independence doesn't mean they'll be completely on their own.

"Encourage your child to advocate for themselves and ask for help," Steele says. "Ensure they know that the college counseling center is available and how reach out. Once the transition has occurred, let your child know you are always there for them and will support them in problem-solving obstacles that may occur."

If your child is struggling with change despite your best efforts, reach out to your pediatrician or find one near you. Learn more about pediatric psychology services at Atrium Health Levine Children's.

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