Supporting teenage children through change

Change can be hard for all of us, including kids. While younger children do need routine and stability, they are also surprisingly resilient and flexible; they understand the ‘rules’ as laid down by mum or dad, and they’re often willing to make changes in their behaviour to ensure everyone’s happy.

But for children hovering around the teenager years, change can be very difficult to deal with. For some, this year meant not only global changes brought on by Covid-19 but also changes in where they went to school, friendship groups, and how much time they spent socialising or on their hobbies. Now that your child is back at school, college or university, things might feel ‘normal’; but daily life might be very different to their expectations.

All these myriad small parts of life contribute to your teenager’s feelings of independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency, all of which are crucial in their development. So how, as a parent, can you support your teenage child through change?

The Kubler-Ross Curve

A useful tool to look at was developed by researcher Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 1960s. Her research looked at how people dealt with death – which may seem an extreme example of change, but it’s useful if you think that every type of change in our lives results in something ending. For example, your teenage child may have ended their time at one school this year, before beginning at another; when we move house, we end our time at one home before we start afresh at another.

Kubler-Ross’ research has been popularised in the decades since its publication, and you may recognise some of the ‘stages’ that she identified people work through as they deal with unwanted or unexpected change:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Bargaining
  • Acceptance

Thinking about these stages as a process that we all go through when facing change can help you support your teenager through the big upheavals in their life, as long as you know what behaviours to look for.

The stages

During shock and denial stages, your child may express disbelief about what’s happening in their world. They may talk nostalgically about their old friends, school uniform or teachers (despite disliking them at the time!). Even if the change is something they were aware of – such as going to college – they might still experience ‘culture shock’.

The anger stage is when your child understands the full reality of a particular situation, but isn’t yet ready to accept it. They may lash out at themselves or others, verbally or physically, and be generally annoyed and irritated a lot of the time.

Depression is characterised by lethargy and uncomfortable emotions. Your child may seem to have lost their zest for life. This can be a very difficult phase for parent and child, and if it appears to be going on for some time it’s important to consult a healthcare professional for additional support.

When in the bargaining stage, your teenager’s behaviour is likely to include discussions around compromise or trying to make the best out of a situation. They still may not like what’s happening, and may be looking for an alternative ‘solution’; for example, they may grudgingly agree not to visit their friend’s house, but argue for seeing them in the park.

Finally, the acceptance stage is where the reality of the change and the new behaviours associated with it begin to be integrated into your child’s life. It doesn’t mean it’ll be done happily – there may be some major grumbling – but it indicates your teenager is ready to handle whatever comes next.

Supporting your teenager

If you’ve noticed a few of these behaviours in your child over the last few months, you can be assured that it’s a process; they’ll move through these stages and even perhaps return to some of them as they come to terms with the ‘new normal’.

As they do, you can support them in a number of key ways.

Maintain routine

Although teenagers are keen to be independent, having a clear and consistent home routine can really help them during times of upheaval. This can include an evening routine where they lay out their school uniform, days or times when you all eat together, fun family activities that happen each week, or phone calls with friends on set days.

With a stable routine, teenagers know they have something to rely on – no matter what happens.

Involve them in decision-making

Teaching children how to make good decisions they can trust is an essential skill for adulthood. For teenagers, you can involve them more heavily in day-to-day decision making, as long as it doesn’t become arduous for anyone involved. Things like meal planning, picking where to go on day trips, or what to watch on movie night, are simple ways to encourage them to think for themselves and make decisions.

Acknowledge their worries

When our children tell us they’re worried about a change happening in their lives, our tendency is to say things like ‘It’s not a big deal’ or ‘There’s no need to worry about that’ as a way to assuage their fears.

Unfortunately, this comes across like we’re not listening – and listening is exactly what teenagers need when going through big changes. Let your child talk openly and acknowledge their worries, even if you think they’re silly or unlikely; this action alone can often help them feel much calmer and safer.

Help them feel secure

Each of us has our own ways in which we like to feel relaxed and secure. It might be a favourite TV show, a home-cooked meal or listening to a much-loved album. Teenagers are still developing these tastes, so assisting them in finding what helps them feel secure can be very useful.

Talk to them about their ‘favourites’: what do they enjoy? What gives them a feeling of calm and contentment? And if it’s something from their childhood, that’s okay; often in times of change we most crave something nostalgic that we know and love.