Helping kids adapt to change


Rosie Byrnes


Learn how you can start helping your child prepare for anything the future has in store.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected—and that the better we’re able to adapt to a changing world, the happier we’ll be.

Change is an inevitable part of the human experience. The way we react to the big changes in our lives can have a huge impact on how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world; and yet, we spend very little time in formal education learning healthy ways to deal with change.

As a result, many of us develop less-than-productive habits for dealing with the unexpected. We avoid change, we deny its existence, we try in vain to change things back to the way they were before. We may find ourselves cycling through patterns of anger, anxiety, self-pity, and bitterness.

And where does that leave our kids?

We know that kids learn a lot through observation and modeling, so the way we deal with change while our kids are around can have a huge impact on how they’re learning to deal with changes of their own.

If we’re going to raise resilient kids, we have to start by changing the way we think about change.

There are all kinds of change. Sometimes, forces beyond our control can cause huge changes in our everyday lives. Other times, change is a result of the decisions we make—we actively make changes in our lives in the hopes that they will improve.

And with each change comes a set of expectations about what that will mean for us. Good or bad, hopeful or fearful, we become attached to our ideas about the way things are supposed to work.

But in truth, things rarely turn out the way we expect them to, anyway! Life moves along of its own accord, and the only real way to know how a change will affect you is to experience it fully—and then to come out wiser on the other side.

Teaching adaptability

Apart from alleviating much of the stress and anxiety that comes with negative coping strategies, teaching our kids to be more adaptable can help them thrive in other areas of their lives, as well.

One longitudinal study of high school students found that kids who were more adaptable—in other words, those who had healthy ways of coping with change—were more likely to participate in class, reported more positive attitudes about school, and set higher academic goals for themselves. These students also reported higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and a sense of self-purpose.

Here are some things you can do to help your child learn to adapt to any changes that come their way:

Let them feel their emotions.

What you may consider a small change—or even a minor daily transition—may feel huge to your child. Remember that kids are at the mercy of the decisions that adults are making, and they may feel powerless to express any kind of agency.

What may seem to you to be an overreaction may actually be a clue that something deeper is going on. Try to validate your child’s feelings, and help them to express their emotions in a healthy way—then sit down to talk about what sparked that reaction.

Keep them in the loop.

Kids are incredibly perceptive—perhaps more so than we give them credit for. Despite our best efforts to hide when something is “wrong,” kids can usually pick up on our subtle cues that a change is coming.

In these instances, it may feel as though you should ease their fears by telling them there’s nothing to worry about. But this may not actually alleviate any anxieties, and in face lead to further emotional turmoil if changes really do affect their lives.

Instead, find some time to discuss what’s happening and how it may affect them. Make space for them to share any fears they have, and remind them of their strongest support system—you!

Give them autonomy wherever you can.

Feelings of hopelessness and anxiety about change can come from feeling powerless, like you have a complete lack of control over the situation.

Identify areas of their lives where kids can have some level of control, and help them to exercise it. Not only will this empower them to develop independence, but it also gives them a sense of agency when things change beyond their power.

Instead of feeling like the whole world has turned against them, kids who have practiced autonomy and independence will have somewhere to turn when the going gets tough.

Talk about the ups and downs of change.

Not all change is negative, even if it might start out feeling like the end of the world. Sometimes, the changes we dread most end up helping us grow into better versions of ourselves.

Without invalidating their concerns, you can talk with your child about the positive effects that could come from big changes. You can remind them of the growth mindset, and how things (and people!) can never grow and evolve if they never risk making a change.

Stick to a routine as much as possible.

When something throws your whole world out of orbit, it can help to have something steady to hold onto.

For many kids (and especially the younger ones), a daily routine can be like a safe haven in the midst of so much uncertainty. Though they may not know what to expect “out there,” at least they can find comfort in knowing exactly what they can expect in their daily activities.

Engage in stories about change.

Reading books, watching shows, or listening to stories about characters who are going through changes can give kids valuable insight into how they can adapt to similar experiences.

Spend some time discussing how the character reacted to change, and whether that was a healthy or unhealthy reaction.

Share your own thoughts and feelings.

One of the most empowering things you can do for your child is to remind them that you’re human, too.

By sharing our own genuine reactions to change, we can assure kids that their emotional reactions are just as valid.

To avoid letting your own emotions take over, however, it may be best to share your thoughts after you’ve had a chance to process them. Speak in a calm manner about how you’ve been feeling, and express your hopes for the future.

If possible, prepare them for change ahead of time.

If you know that a big change is coming in your family, give your kids plenty of time to process it before the change occurs.

Though they may react strongly at first, giving them more time to work through their feelings before the actual event can allow them to find some closure and figure out healthy plans of adapting.

Open the door for communication—and leave it open!

When dealing with big changes, the last thing you want your kids to feel is alone. Open the doors to communication about the change as early as possible, so that they know that you’re in this together.

It can take time for kids to work through their feelings about change, so be sure they know that your conversation doesn’t need to end after one sit-down. By assuring them that you’re always open to hear what you’re thinking, you can give them the time and space they need to process without any extra pressure involved.

Whatever stage of life we find ourselves in, there’s never a question of whether changes will occur—they always do! Instead, the value lies in how we react to those changes, and how we can keep ourselves moving forward.