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Youth and Transitions: How to Help Children and Adolescents Navigate Change

Youth and Transitions: How to Help Children and Adolescents Navigate Change

“Change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end.”

Robin Sharma

Between the pandemic, teacher turnover, school closures, and the developmental and biological changes that youth face, youth have experienced A LOT of change the past several years.

Take a moment here to consider how you handle change. Do you become motivated? Overwhelmed? Happy? Sad? Just consider what emotions come up for you as you think through transitions in your life…

For some, change is welcomed with open arms. Perhaps, you thought of exciting opportunities for new experiences and growth. Or, perhaps, change comes with uncertainty, discomfort, and fear. Maybe there was some positive or negative stress present. No matter the experience, these feelings can be difficult to manage. Children and adolescents are no different, besides the fact that they may not know how to identify, verbalize, express, and manage these feelings. If you are a caregiver who is trying to figure out how to support amid these difficult feelings, you’re not alone.

The biggest and most important difference between how adults handle change and how children handle change is life experience. As people move and stumble through life, they learn to reflect on past experiences to use various skills to navigate current stressors – they problem-solve, manage conflict, regulate their emotions, seek support, take care of themself in the process, etc. Youth may, but more often do not, have those life experiences and skills yet. Those past experiences inform future outcomes allowing for the adult to remain resilient and hopeful. In contrast, for young people, the outcomes of transition may be confusing, uncomfortable, or downright terrifying. Children and adolescents are also resilient and can be incredibly resourceful, but they cannot assume they will figure it all out on their own.

You might be wondering—when children struggle to identify and verbalize their feelings, what might that look like? After speaking with several teachers, school-based counselors, and caregivers (parents of all kinds) the following experiences are reported as current challenges for youth in our communities:

  • Age-appropriate conflict resolution
  • Less distress tolerance
  • Seeking even more immediate gratification
  • Making and maintaining friends
  • Emotional “outbursts”
  • Anxiety and depression

These experiences are normal, and youth are communicating in the ways that they know how that they need support.

So, how can you support youth through transitions?

  • Acknowledge and listen, then empathize. Whether this transition is positive or not, young people often experience loss and grief. Acknowledging their feelings and listening to their experience with empathy can help them better understand and process their experience, as well as feel like they have support from you.
  • Maintain boundaries. When people are stressed, it can be attempting to try to control your surroundings, including the children and adolescents you may interact with. Reactive discipline when you are under stress may be tempting. Proactive boundaries build trust. This kind of consistency allows for youth to understand what they can count on and what logical consequences may result if their behavior crosses those boundaries.
  • Offer choices. Young people often feel a lack of control as they grow and desire more autonomy and freedom. If there are opportunities for youth to voice their opinions, while still respecting the necessary boundaries in place, take them. This will provide that sense of independence that they may need.
  • Maintain routines or traditions. From an evolutionary perspective, human beings resist change. We know that people, by nature, need predictability to feel safe. By maintaining consistency in routines or traditions, you can maintain some of that predictability, even in the midst of change.
  • Honor courage. Change takes courage. Tell them what they’ve done well and how proud you are and be specific when you praise them. Why be specific? Because this will encourage children to do more of that specific thing. Purposeful, specific praise also helps young people feel more in control. When they know exactly what they did to generate this positive encouragement, they can repeat that behavior. This often gives youth the bravery they need to continue onwards.
  • Ask for support. If you or the youth you care about are struggling with a transition, reach out! This is a common experience in our communities – reach out to friends, family members, fellow caregivers, professionals, etc. Caregivers know that it truly takes a village! The reality is that transitions can be unnerving for anyone and everyone involved, but they can also facilitate connection and growth for the individuals involved and the relationships.

Remember, Jefferson Center is here!

“Through every change impacting our schools and the children and families in our community, Jefferson Center will always be here to provide quality behavioral health support for all members of our community.”

Julie Dawson, Director of Family Services, Jefferson Center
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