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Counseling for Children Facing Life Adjustments

Children experience transitions and adjustment to life changes differently than adults. While transitions and life adjustments are a normal part of life, it is important to remember that children experience big emotions with limited developmental ability to process big feelings and emotions in comparison to their adult counterparts. Life transitions can often be unpredictable and, as adults, we have the capacity to reflect on past transitions in order to adapt and cope with change. Oftentimes, children are experiencing transition for the first time and need extra support in order to make the process as easy as possible. According to Psychology Today, most of us, and especially children, appreciate some level of “sameness” in our lives. Children need time to process all of the information that they are exposed to and appreciate daily routines and repetition or they may become stressed.

Examples of common transitions/life adjustments for children include: moving homes; changing schools; experiencing divorce/separation of parents; becoming a big brother or sister; death of a family member or loved one; friend/family member moving; parent returning to work; chronic illness of family member or loved one; vehicle accidents, etc.

child with stress

How Do I Know If My Child Is Having Difficulty Adjusting to a Recent Transition?

Children have difficulty handling emotions because their brains are still developing the skills necessary to regulate emotions, which are not fully formed until they are young adults. Living in the moment means that what comes next is unnerving – they don’t know what to expect.

Children react differently to transition in their lives. Behavioral changes are the most commonly displayed reactions described by parents and caregivers – i.e., tantrums, resistance, withdrawal, aggressiveness, crying and/or sensitivity, inability to separate from loved ones, difficulty managing any major emotion, fear, nervousness, and/or physical shaking.

How Can Counseling Help?

Studies show that protective factors can assist children in negotiating transitions positively such as strong relationships with parents or caregivers, internal and attitudinal coping resources, self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-regulation, connections to community, and adult guidance.

Using individual and parent counseling, a therapist can assist with guiding a child and their family though a transition by assisting the child with important growth in skills including learning:

  1. the flexibility to shift attention
  2. to plan what comes next
  3. how to manage emotions, and
  4. how to sequence.

These are pieces of becoming thoughtful and able to think through decisions before acting on them.

Coping with change is part of developing flexibility, an essential skill needed for success in learning. A therapist can assist with providing support as a child/family copes with change and the process of adapting to change within their environment.

Strategies

There are a variety of strategies that you can use to assist your child with change – big and small – while also dealing with the stress and anxiety that may accompany the adjustment process.

  • Give advanced warning. Have a discussion explaining what is happening and how it will change. For example, “The place where Mommy works thinks she will be a bigger help if we move to another place. We are going to look for a new house in a place called Texas. Will you help us pick out the house?”
  • Keep as much the same as possible. During a big change, like adding a sibling to the family, try to keep as much the same as possible. For example, this is not the best time to move your child’s bedroom or change the daily routine very much.
  • Answer all of their questions. Depending on your child’s age, he may have a lot of questions. Do your best to answer them all, even if they are repeated numerous times.
  • Expect that some regression may happen. At times of change, children may regress to earlier behaviors. For example, a child that was toilet trained may revert back to having accidents. This is normal – work hard to remain patient.
  • Be accepting of grieving. Your child may go through a process that looks a lot like grieving as she navigates changes with a new house, sibling, teacher or school. Allow the grieving to take place and remind her of all of the positives.
 

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