Resources / For families

Big Changes and Big Feelings: A Guide for Parents

teen in bedroom looking at phone
Dominica Fox-DeMarco, MA, NBC-HWC
Dominica Fox-DeMarco, MA, NBC-HWC

Feb 6, 2024

Change is an inevitable, expected part of life. As adults - we get it, but kids might not. Prepare them for upcoming life transitions now and in the future.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be covering a series of big changes and how to help your children navigate them - making life easier for your entire family. 

What signifies a big change?

A “big change” is unique for every child, depending on their developmental age, environment, ACES (adverse childhood experiences), and being a marginalized youth. Major changes however, typically include separation/divorce, moving to a new place or new school, a new sibling, loss of a loved one or pet, new step-parents/blended families, illness, or financial changes impacting the family.

Change can feel scary 

We all feel the impacts of change, but it can be particularly draining for children. Children generally find it difficult to transition between activities, places and objects of attention. Being asked to stop one thing and start another is a very common trigger for big feelings, especially for kids who have emotional or developmental challenges.

Children are dealing with changes everyday of their life. They are taking in new information all the time, and being asked to do many things. On top of that, kids have little control over their daily schedule and what’s coming up next. So, when dealing with an even bigger change, such as the loss of a loved one, this can bring up heightened emotions of sadness, uncertainty, or frustration- to name a few.

Children aren't mini adults. Their brains are run by the limbic system, which controls emotion, motivation, memory, and behavior regulation. The limbic system doesn’t have access to words or language. It’s important to understand when a child’s body is intuitively preparing to deal with a stressful situation, it is unable to identify the words to identify the emotions, whereas adults brains are more developed to be able to articulate emotions. Most of the time anyways 😉. 

Change response by age

You may have children of different ages, and this plays another role in how changes affect them and how they respond. 

  • Although babies don’t have words yet to express themself, they have the ability to experience moments of joy, and can feel fear, grief, sadness, hopelessness, or anger. 

  • Most toddlers have big emotions but have not yet learned how to fully express those in agreeable ways, which can cause tantrums. At this stage, toddlers need a trusted adult to help them with finding the words they need to express themselves.

  • Preschool aged children start to learn how to take turns and follow rules more easily. They also are still learning consequences for the actions of their behavior, may test limits, or be competitive. 

  • School age children start to become more social with peers and learn to develop a belief in themselves, while being asked to do more complex tasks. On the other hand, a lack of self-confidence can develop if these skills aren’t nurtured. 

  • Adolescent ages are starting to form independence, identity, and trying to figure out their place in the world. If an adolescent feels overwhelmed with tasks or expectations at this stage, it can cause interference with establishing their identity. Teens are incredibly resilient but they also can be vulnerable to stressors and experience mood swings. Listening, being fully present, and staying calm are key ways to validate a teens experience. 

Help children cope with change

  1. Validate their emotions. It can be easy to dismiss, avoid, encourage your child to “look on the bright side”, or try to redirect a child’s emotions when a big change is happening. Validating your child will help them feel seen, understood, and valued. This also shows them you're someone they can trust with their feelings and go to when things become hard.

  2. Give your child a sense of control. For example, if you’re moving, allow your child to take part in the agency over some part of the new home - such as painting their room the color they want or picking out a decoration they really love.

  3. Stick to a similar routine. Consistency and predictability will help your child feel a sense of safety and security. 

  4. Provide stability and model emotional regulation. Change is stressful for caregivers too, and you’re likely managing your own difficulties while trying to support your child. It’s important to take care of yourself and at the same time, remind yourself to be a positive role model for your child while they navigate change with you. This will support your child with resilience and learning positive coping skills along the way!