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Navigating Family Transitions

  • How might a family transition affect my child?
  • How can I help my child cope with a family transition?

How Can I Help My Child Cope with a Family Transition?

All families experience transitions—periods of change or disruption to normal family life and routines. Some transitions may be smaller-scale,  temporary adjustments;  while others may be major long-term changes.  Although elementary school children are young, they may still go through life-altering changes during this time. Beyond just transitioning into kindergarten, they may also experience::

  • moving to a new neighborhood
  • losing a pet
  • having a best friend move
  • having a favorite teacher leave
  • parents separating or getting divorced 
  • losing someone they are close to

Any transition may create anxiety for a child depending on their personality.  Some may respond well to support, while others will shut down and isolate themselves.  Some will be able to develop coping skills and adjust more easily and others will struggle to find their way.  In addition, some kids with sensory or learning difficulties may find it hard to complete even the smallest transition, like moving on to a new activity. In any case, many children need time to process and adjust to this change.

Being aware of how your child may respond to life-changing transitions and knowing how to support them can have a big influence on how well they respond now and during future experiences. Parents cannot control all of the factors that determine how well their child will deal with transition.  However, they can keep the channels of communication open and focus on having a supportive and nurturing relationship with them. 

Why it Matters

The effects of major transitions in a child’s life may worry some parents.  Children may begin to exhibit patterns and behaviors that are unusual for them if they are struggling with change. Younger children will often show their stress through fear, anger and worry. In addition, they may experience more meltdowns, be less cooperative and show less interest in school, friends and hobbies.   If these behaviors go unchecked, they can lead to more serious issues later on down the line.  These may include depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor performance in school, lack of sleep, increased stress, defiance, relationship troubles, misuse of substances, and aggressiveness. 

Parents and caregivers can set their child up for success by preparing them for transitions they know are on the horizon.  For example, if you know they are moving, getting a divorce, changing schools or starting a new job, you can take time to discuss what is happening and what to expect.  You can also give their child a chance to share any feelings they have about the change ahead.  This will help your child feel as though they are valued, a part of the process, and being heard about their concerns.  It is important to remember that even young children deserve this attention.  Although they may not be able to articulate everything clearly, they can sense when things are off and can also benefit from processing change.

Check In:

One way to gauge how your child may respond, is to informally assess how easily they deal with change. Below are some indicators of how adaptable a child may be.  Read through them and check the ones that apply to your child.  Note that not all transitions are equal and their ability to adapt may vary for different situations.  

My Child

  • is not upset by surprises.
  • can make decisions about what to do and how to respond easily.
  • feels confident in their decisions once they are made.
  • can easily adjust when plans change.
  • takes healthy risks and is not afraid of failure.
  • can persevere through challenging situations.
  • is able to compromise when people in their family or peer group want different things.
  • enjoys “newness” of places, experiences and people.
  • easily transitions from one activity to the next when asked to.
  • approaches new activities with excitement and confidence.
  • experiments with different things in a healthy way.
  • seems resourceful.
  • can think ahead.
  • is curious.

If your child seems less adaptable, there are ways to help teach them how to develop this within themselves.  Being flexible in this way will not only  help them through a tough transition, but also in other aspects of their lives.  Check out the following resources:

How to Raise an Adaptable Kid:

Raise Children with Adaptability:

Teaching Kids How to Adapt:

Connect & Communicate:

Parents may not always know what is going on with their child for many reasons.  They may be too young to express themselves, they might  be afraid to or they are simply too upset to deal with it.  It is important for parents to take the lead and check in with their children to see how they might be feeling before, during, and after a transition occurs.

Before beginning a conversation, make sure that it will be uninterrupted.  You want to have enough time and space for your child to open up and ask questions and if you only have a short time allotted, you may not have time for that. You may also choose to do this while doing other tasks like washing dishes, playing or driving in a car  because it can be less intense and intimidating when you are not talking eye-to-eye.

Be available:  Make yourself available to talk as much as possible. Check in with them and ask how they are doing and if they have anything they want to share.  Don’t overdo this, but make sure they know you are free to talk when they need you.

Be open:  Show an openness to talking about whatever comes up for them. Answer their questions truthfully.

Listen and allow their perspective:  Avoid telling them how they should process their experience or what they should do.  Listen carefully to what they have to say and encourage them to share how things feel and are from their own unique point of view.  Validate their experience. 

Separation/Divorce and the loss of a loved one are two of the more potentially traumatic events that can happen during a teens life.  For more specific information on how to talk through those topics, see the links below:

Click here or here for more specific ways of handling questions and conversations around divorce/separation.

Click here for more specific ways of handling questions and conversations around death and dying.

In addition to talking openly and honestly about separation/divorce and the loss of the loved one, there are ways that parents and caregivers can support their teen during these transitions.

Separation/DivorceLoss of a loved one
Explain the situation and reassure them that they are loved and it is not their fault.Remind them that there are a range of emotions that they may experience and that they are normal and healthy to express.
Listen without interruption and let your child ask questionsBe available and present to them.  Allow them to share and ask questions.  Answer them truthfully.
Develop a co-parenting strategy since the number one predictor of how a child will do in divorce is how well their parents get along.Take time to regularly talk about the person they have lost.  Share stories and express how that person affected them and influenced their life.
Avoid conflict with your ex/partner in front of your child.Practice self-care for yourself while also being responsible for your child..  Model what it looks like to take care of yourself while you are grieving.
Maintain routines and to create a sense of normalcy in their lives.Work to keep as much normalcy in their lives as possible. They may include practicing sports, going to school, family traditions and spending time with friends.
Let the other adults in their lives know that you are separating/divorcing so that this burden is not left to your child.Avoid telling them how to grieve and instead allow them to go through the process however they feel they need to. 
Deal with poor behavior immediately; do not allow the situation to be an excuse for them to break rules or behave in negative ways.Regularly ask them how they are doing and if they would like to talk.  However, be respectful if they are not in the mood to do so.
Make sure that your son or daughter has someone like a trusted friend, neighbor, relative, therapist or godparent who can serve as a neutral third party.  This is a person  they can go to when they need someone to talk to.Allow them to decide on how they would like to honor their loved one.  Ask them if there is anything they would like to do or say at the funeral or ceremony. 
Create opportunities where your child  has your undivided attention.  This can help to create connections and may allow them to open up.If your child needs help, immediately let them know you are proud of them for reaching out as this is not easy for them to do.
Show genuine interest in your  child’s life by attending games, asking questions and planning activities that you can do together.Find a support group that may help them with the grieving process. 
Allow them to feel and express all the emotions that come up and reassure them that those are normal and healthy responses to what they are experiencing.Tell them that things will get better but also be realistic with them.  Explain that there will be some good days and bad days but that the process may not actually ever end.
Make the home feel like a safe and secure place to be. 


Dealing with Divorce

Create a Co-Parenting Plan:  This may help you and your ex-partner get on the same page about how to parent as you share custody.  As a result your child will have more routines and set expectations that apply to each household.

Read Children’s Books about Divorce:  This is a list of books that are geared towards elementary aged children. Find one or two that your child might connect with and take some time to discuss the message.

Workbooks to Help Children Through Divorce/Separation : Workbooks 

Dealing with Death and Dying

Read Books on Death and Dying:  This is a list of books geared towards the elementary grades.  Look through and find something you think your child would connect to.  Read it together or allow them to read it on their own to discuss.

Activities for Grieving Children:  These sites list and describe different ways to work with grief and honor those who have passed.

Meaningful Grief and Loss Activities:  A list and description of activities you can do with your kid when they have lost someone. For example, there is a memory box activity.  Children find something like an old shoe box and decorate it.  Then they put objects that remind them of the person (or animal!)they lost.

Create opportunities to laugh and have fun together:  Have fun rituals that you can do weekly. For example, go to places where the kids have known the people or owners since they were little.  Do activities that reduce stress like live music, amusement parks or a movie. Ask your teen what game or activity they want to do and then plan times to do that with them on a regular basis.

Contact & Collaborate:

As mentioned above,  having a neutral third party in a divorce or even for the death of a loved one can help your child  talk about what is going on.  This can be a family friend, neighbor, relative or godparent.  If you feel that your child needs more guidance or support then talking to the school counselor, psychologist or therapist may be more helpful. Below are some resources for parents and teens.

Continue Learning:

The following resources are specifically geared towards losing a loved one and divorce. 


The Divorce Center:  Parents Apart (online course):

Raising Strong Kids Through Divorce (podcast):  Various episodes that address different topics around divorce and how it affects kids.

Co-Parent Dilemmas (podcast):  Episodes that talk about the trials and tribulations of co-parenting and how to navigate working with your ex while also raising children.

Very Well Family (article):  The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children,with%20peers%20after%20a%20divorce.

Today’s Parents (article):  How to Tell Kids about Divorce: An Age-by-Age Guide

Pathfinders for Autism:  Telling Your Kids You’re Getting a Divorce

Death and Dying

Child MInd: Helping Children Cope with Death (website)

Good Inside:  A podcast on how to talk about death with your child.

Maggie Dent (podcast) How to Help Kids Deal with Death and Loss

NPR (article): The Dog Isn’t Sleeping: How to Talk to Children About Death (the story of a pet)

Talking to Special Needs Children about Death and Dying

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