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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 Teen 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.  Teenagers are likely to experience transitions in their lives by the time they finish high school. 

Some of them include:

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

Being aware of how your teen 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.

Any transition may create anxiety for a child depending on their personality.  Some may seek support, while others will shut down and isolate themselves.  Some will have coping skills that allow them to 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 move from one activity to the next.  In any case, it is normal for them to need time to adjust.  Parents cannot control all of the factors that determine how well their teen 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 teen’s life can be worrisome.  Teens may begin to exhibit patterns and behaviors that are unusual for them if they are struggling with change.  If these behaviors go unchecked, they can lead to more serious issues later on down the line.  These may include but are not limited to 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 teens up for success by preparing them for transitions they know are on the horizon.  For example, if they know they are moving, getting a divorce, changing schools, or starting a new job, they can take time to discuss what is happening and what to expect.  They can also give their teen a chance to share any feelings they have about the change ahead.  This will help your teen feel as though they are valued and a part of the process.

Check In:

Take this brief survey to identify your child’s strengths and areas for further development in some key decision-making skills.  Read through them and check the ones that apply to your teen.  This may give you some sense of how well they will do with change.  It is important to remember that not all transitions are equal and their ability to adapt may vary for different situations.

My Teen

  • Does your teen get upset if you ask them to stop what they are doing to do something else?
  • Do surprises upset your child?
  • Is it difficult for your child to make a decision?
  • Does your child agonize about their decisions once they have been made?
  • Can you teen adjust to new plans when the original ones get changed?
  • Is your child afraid of failure and therefore avoids taking healthy risks?
  • Does your child persevere through challenging situations?
  • Is your child able to compromise when people in their family or peer group want different things?

Connect & Communicate:

Start the Conversation:

Parents may not always know what is going on with their teen because they may not be good at expressing 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 teens to see how they might be feeling before 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 teen 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, hiking 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 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 teen’s life. 

For more specific information on how to talk through those topics, see the links below:

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 teens during these transitions.

Separation/Divorce Loss 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 teen ask questions Be 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 teen. Practice self-care for yourself while also being responsible for your teen. 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 teen. 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 teen has your undivided attention. This can help to create connections and may allow them to open up. If your teen asks for 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 teen’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. Seek professional help if you feel it is needed or if you notice substance misuse or any talk of hurting themselves or others.


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 teen will have more routines and set expectations that apply to each household.

Read Teen Novels that Deal with Divorce:

You can even read these books with your teen and discuss how the situation in the book is similar to or different from yours.  This can be an opening for more discussions about what is happening in your particular family.

Read Teen Novels about Death and Dying and Discuss:

(NOTE:  This does not have to wait until someone has passed away.  You can begin the conversation early on)

Activities for Grieving Children and Teens:

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.

Listen to the podcast about teens losing a loved one and discuss:

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 teen talk about what is going on.  This can be a family friend, neighbor, relative or godparent.  If you feel that your teen 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. 

Helping Teens Cope with Divorce & Adapt to Blended Families

Divorce is never easy on the kids involved, but the process can be particularly fraught for teenagers. How does divorce impact teens differently than younger children? What is the best way to customize a parenting plan for teens? And how can you support teens in adapting to a new, blended family?

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