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Feature Article


Helping Children Adjust to Changes

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia

Children and adults all need time to adjust to change. Even though we know some ways to help children adjust to changes in their lives, it still takes time. This article provides some ideas about how to help children adjust to changes in their family life.

Time to Adjust
For most children who have had changes in their family situations, adjustment time can last two or three years. During this time, children must try to accept the fact that their family really has changed. They have to deal with their feelings of loss. They must try to pay attention to school and playmates once again and build new relationships with their parents. This takes time.

It is also important to remember that changes will keep on coming. Many times, changes in families mean changes in neighborhoods and schools. Each of these changes will call for adjustments. The fewer changes there are, the easier it will be for children to adjust. Of course, changes can’t always be controlled.

Children in single-parent families often face other types of changes. There may be changes in visitation and custody. Sometimes kids are just getting used to the idea that they won’t have much contact with a parent when that parent enters the picture again. Then children must start to build a new relationship with that parent. Children have to adjust again and again as changes come along.

Families can also change as parents begin dating and thinking about the possibility of getting married. Children may worry and be concerned about how these changes will affect them. They may be afraid that if one parent remarries, their ties to the other parent will end. Even in cases where the parent has died or is never around, children may feel that they are not being loyal to the absent parent if they like this new person. In all of these cases, it is important for children to be prepared for changes in the family. They need a chance to ask questions and discuss their concerns. They need to get to know new people in their parents’ lives. And they need to be sure that they can keep their relationship to the parent they don’t live with. By letting them know what to expect, children can understand what their future holds.

Children Experience Positive Changes
Most people who study children in single-parent families focus on the bad things that can happen. There are also some positive things. Children in single-parent families often learn to be more independent. They say that by having more responsibility at home, they feel more confident in other situations.

Some children are also better at handling stress. Since they were able to make adjustments as kids, they will be more able to deal with changes in the future.

Many children also develop new and positive relations with friends and other extended family members and grow closer to their parents. During this process, some children also begin to understand how important other people are in their lives and gain the communication skills they need for good relationships.

Conflict Hurts Children
One of the most important things we have learned from studying families is that children who experience too much conflict will have more problems. There can be many sources of conflict for single-parent families. They can come up between former spouses or among family and friends--especially if single parents share homes with others. Regardless of the source, open conflict can cause problems for kids.

It is important for parents to find ways to control their own conflicts and deal with their own anger. Parents face many frustrating situations and problems that can lead to anger. When you know that you will be with a person who upsets you, try to prepare yourself. Imagine the situation to yourself. Think of all the things this person might say or do to get at you. Think of ways that you can stay calm in the face of insults or put-downs, or practice just ignoring these remarks. Keep reminding yourself how important it is to be calm, and practice comments or thoughts that will help keep the situation quiet. Rather than thinking the worst, try to be positive. Remember that you want to solve a problem and that too much anger will only get you off the track.

If you find yourself getting very angry, this is the time to talk to yourself in ways that calm you down. If you get too angry, you may be rash or mean, and this will probably not help the situation. The best way to solve a problem and stay in control is to keep your anger from taking over.

Just because you stay calm and try to solve problems does not mean that others will behave as they should. If you can’t avoid dealing with someone who will cause conflict, try to prevent the children from seeing and hearing it. This will not always be possible, of course, but try to remember that having fights in front of the children will hurt them.

Love and Limits
When we look at the long-term, we know that children need love, and they need to know there are rules and limits. Regardless of the family, healthy children need people who care about them and respond to their needs and concerns. And they need people who will teach them how to control their anger and aggression so that they don’t hurt themselves or others. Try to show your love and affection every day. Teach children how to get along with others. They can learn to adjust to the changes in their families in healthy ways.

Discussion Questions
Ask the following questions when you talk with children about changes in their family..

  1. Who are your good friends and why are they important to you?
  2. Families are always changing. Name some of the changes that have happened in your family. How do you feel about them?
  3. Do you expect any changes in your family in the future? What are they? How do you feel about them?
  4. Some kids don’t see one of their parents very much. Has this ever happened to you? How did you feel? What did you do?
  5. Sometimes changes in our families make us feel closer to others. What makes you feel good about your family?

There can be many changes in families. They can move, children may go to different schools, custody or visitation plans may change, or parents can get married. Think about recent changes in your family and talk about other changes that have occurred or may occur in the near future. Ask children how you could all work together to make changes easier.

Draw a special picture that shows your family doing something fun. This could be done by the whole family together.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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