Coaching Children To Confidently Adapt To The Challenges Of Change

A parent writes: Our kids avoid change and shun anything new. They are both getting ready to start new schools and we don’t know how to help them.   

   While most children have the capacity to reasonably manage life’s twists and turns, some transition points can be particularly difficult. Home relocations, upper grade and school changes, and leaving home at the start of college are some of the more stressful and sometimes overwhelming pivot points of life. Anticipating these changes can stir up countless concerns and significant angst. The ability to successfully manage the emotional somersaults of worry, wonder, and excitement can help determine eventual adjustment to transition. Parents can be particularly helpful in guiding children to a more comfortable and confident launching point to confront such changes.

    If your family and/or child are at the threshold of a significant change point, consider these coaching tips to help your child or teen prepare for and embrace transition:

   Their ability to mentally organize and emotionally process internal experience is critical to successful preparation for change. Mental organization entails labeling the various emotions and thoughts that rush through kids as change grows near. Feelings such as fear of the unknown, worry over the problems of the past reappearing or dread about the initial encounters with new people and circumstances are all common but can grow onerous and paralyzing. Thoughts about not being accepted and/or liked by others or having trouble quickly developing a comfort level within the new surroundings can grow burdensome and intractable. Some children, and even parents, naively attach predictive meaning to these thoughts and feelings, reinforcing the view that if kids’ think and feel this way such bad scenarios will occur. Consider that the anticipation of major change in life tends to unearth a lot of temporary emotional turbulence for children, teens, and adults. Change changes us- at least as we ready ourselves for it.

   The parents’ role is to normalize these experiences and not succumb to their own worry that the child will not be ready when it’s time to “put a smile on their face.” If parents enroll into the “think positive police” the child will likely not feel safe to go to them for processing. It’s neither helpful nor soothing to hear the parental refrain, “Just don’t think like that.”   Some kids have such intense feelings and thoughts that they require the cathartic relief that comes from processing.  Processing occurs when they express this intensity and parents listen carefully to the child’s worry and dread, empathizing with their concerns, and reassuring them that this is a normal part of the adjustment to change. Parents explain how their imagination “fills in the blanks in our minds” when there are so many feelings about an uncertain future.   Parents offer opportunities for them to privately share these “anticipatory change jitters” and not try to convince them that “everything will be fine” when they know there will be challenges ahead.

   Confidence grows from reviewing similar change points when they experienced similar adaptation tests. Help them pinpoint specific successes they remember, such as quickly developing friendships on family vacations, overcoming reluctance about new activities and schedules, or deviating from a secure schedule they follow at home. Agree with their insistence that “this time is different” but ask that they take ownership of what they have accomplished in the past. Encourage them to extract “seize the change guidelines” that served them well before. These might include taking a special interest in remembering people’s names, having an inspirational talk with themselves each morning as they started their day, or creating daily goals and reviewing progress at the end of the day.  See if they can come up with examples of how these guidelines might apply to what they already know about the changes to come.

Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450 or