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For Children, Life Changes Can Be Overwhelming

Change can be difficult for all of us, and especially tough for children.

Key points

  • Change can be hard for anyone. Even good change can create stress and difficulties.
  • It can be even harder for children, who may not be developmentally ready to understand some of the changes around them.
  • A child acting out inappropriately may be emotionally overwhelmed by a transition in their lives.
  • Helping children through the stress and uncertainty with empathy can help them feel more secure.

People generally like stability. Whether we are comfortable with the life we're living or hoping to achieve greater success, there is security in having a routine and knowing we have our needs met. Being secure in where we live, who we live with, and where our next meals are coming from helps to center us. Having stability in our lives helps us feel more secure and safe. That’s why change that affects these life circumstances can be remarkably upsetting. Even good changes in our lives come with a price.

Often we hear of people who attain tremendous success in their professional lives but are struggling in their personal ones. Whether marriages are breaking up or there are substance abuse issues, professional success is not a guarantee that everything else will work out the way we planned. Large changes in our lives, good or bad, can create uncertainty and insecurities that can become overwhelming. Sudden success may create pressures in the relationship that can lead to divorce. The bottom line is that while life is about continual changing, humans often seek out stability because too much change can cause a great deal of discomfort.

Change is inevitable

Adults struggle with this all the time. It could be as common as losing a job, having a relationship break up, or a death in the family. We struggle with issues of change throughout our lives. As adults, we’ve learned to cope with many of the changes that occur. While the uncertainty of change can be extremely upsetting to us as adults, at least we are aware of the circumstances that have caused what is happening. Children do not always have that luxury.

Children are often brought up in stable households until something happens. They are brought up to believe they are secure. From a child’s point of view, their parents will always be there, their homes are secure, and they believe things will stay the way they are. They feel they are on solid ground about what’s real in their lives.

Now imagine what happens when a child has a best friend who moves away from the neighborhood. How does the child cope with the loss? Perhaps it's the child that moves to a new town and has to start over with a new set of kids at school. What happens if their parents divorce? It can be an emotional roller-coaster. There will likely be a significant sense of loss with the child having very little ability to make sense of these major life changes.

Increased stress for children

When changes happen, children can easily become overwhelmed. The common act of moving to a new city can wreak havoc on their emotions. What about all of their friends? What about the comfort of knowing where things are in their neighborhood? What about their school or their teachers?

Parents may not realize the incredible fear and upset that comes along with major changes for children. While adults make these choices, they usually have a chance to consider them. Children don’t always get that luxury. They are just told what’s happening. They don’t have a lot of say in the matter (if any) and sometimes do not even have time to digest the changes that are happening.

As children become teenagers, they already have a lot of changes going on in their lives. They are reaching puberty and are discovering new feelings and experiences. They are heading toward adulthood. All of these changes are tough enough; however, when you add other family changes (divorce, moving to a new community, financial setbacks), it can make the changes they’re already experiencing even more overwhelming.

Recognize how a child’s trauma can be linked to change

It is important that parents and adults who interact with children recognize that changes in a child’s life can be traumatic. A secure child can suddenly feel at risk. A high-achieving child may slide in their schoolwork.

When adults see negative changes in children, especially if they’re combined with other family changes, it is important to recognize that the child may be struggling. Maybe they’re acting out in ways they hadn’t before. They may not be behaving poorly because they’ve turned into bad kids. It may be that they don’t know how to emotionally cope with the changes in their lives. They may be overwhelmed and not know what to do to be able to center themselves.

Change is hard for everyone. It is especially overwhelming to children and adolescents who have not yet developed the capacity to deal with their feelings. As we get older and our life experiences increase, we often become more able to effectively handle the changes in our lives. We develop a capacity for self-reflection and awareness that allows us to maintain our emotional stability even in the face of change. Children may not have developed that skill yet. They may be completely overwhelmed by major changes in their lives, and it’s important to understand this so we can show them empathy and help them through changes they may find difficult in their lives.

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