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Helping Your Child Cope with Major Life Changes

January 3, 2017|Child & Adolescent

As CPA begins to expand our child & adolescent services, we’re pleased to announce we’ll be periodically sharing short articles by CPA clinicians on issues addressing children, adolescents, and parents.

Helping Your Child Cope with Major Life Changes

Many children have to face major life changes at some point: a new sibling, a move to a new house or new school, divorce, or even a death in the family. Parents can help make the experience more manageable and help their children navigate the often complicated and even conflicting emotions during a major life shift.

In general, being as clear and precise about the upcoming changes can reduce anxiety that comes from uncertainty, e.g. explaining when you will start packing, when moving truck will come, how you will get to school from the new house, etc. It is a good idea to ask (for younger kids,) “What will you like best about having a new brother/moving into your own room/changing schools? What won’t you like?” For older kids, the language can be more sophisticated: “What are you looking forward to most about this change? What are you most worried about?”

In a case where the child is very upset, obviously the process of adjustment can take a long time and there are no easy solutions. Nevertheless, asking, “What might make this easier for you?” or “What might help make up for this?” can be worthwhile. For example, I heard of one middle school girl who was incredibly angry at her mother for making her move, but for whom being allowed a black shag rug in her new room was a pivotal moment of acceptance.

Finally, if there are any elements a child can choose or control, allow them those opportunities: picking the coming-home outfit for baby sister, the color scheme for their new room, or whether they want to have their daily talk with the noncustodial parent before or after dinner.

One helpful exercise for preschool through school age children is to make a “Same and Different” booklet. Solicit ideas from your child about what will remain the same and what will be different, and write them down one per page. It can be helpful give an example yourself. The child can then illustrate each statement. The book may become a favorite to read over and over, as the child turns to it for reassurance and mental preparation. If the child has trouble generating ideas, you can ask leading questions such as, “Are you going to have the same bed? Are you still going to be friends with Mary?”

Such questions can also unearth misunderstandings, which are quite common especially with younger children. I remember one first grader being very upset when he found out his parents were having another baby, but it turned out he thought they would have to go away for nine months “to make the baby,” and was worried about who would take care of him in the meantime! Don’t worry if your child’s ideas seem concrete and trivial from an adult perspective; concrete details are important to children, and for very young ones, the only way for them to grasp concepts that are otherwise too abstract.

Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. 

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