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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.  Children are likely to experience some transitions in their lives by the time they finish high school.  They include, but are not limited to:

  • 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

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.  

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 can be worrisome. They 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 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 transition 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 child a change to share any feelings they have about the change ahead. This will help your child feel as though they are valued and a part of the process.

Check In:

Below are some indicators of how adaptable a person may be. Read through them and check the ones that apply to your child. 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 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 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.

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 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 children 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 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, 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 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 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 teen 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 teen.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 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 child  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  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.Seek professional help if you feel it is needed or if you notice substance misuse or any talk of hurting themselves or others.


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

Read Tween Books about Divorce:  This is a list of books that are geared towards middle schoolers. Find one or two that your child might connect with and take some time to discuss the message.

Workbooks to Help Teens Through Divorce/Separation

Dealing with Death and Dying

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

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. 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.

Podcasts on Loss:  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 middle schooler  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.

Divorce Dialogues (podcast):

Death and Dying

Child MInd: Helping Children Cope with Death (website)

Surviving Middle School (podcast):  An episode on helping your middle schooler navigate grief.

Teen Grief (podcast):  Various episodes related to grief, how it is different for teens and what parents can do to help. ​

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