C hange can be tough. Some kids are forced to deal with profound change at a young age. They may move from city to city or from home to home, or — through illness, death, or other causes — experience significant changes within their own home. Even kids who experience very little change in their childhood other than the the arrival of new siblings and the annual move from grade to grade, may find those changes unnerving.

Parental Crisis and Instability

However much you might crave stability, you cannot ensure its presence in life. Hashem may have other plans. He may arrange all sorts of crises and changes, forcing a person, against her will, to deal with upheaval and turmoil in addition to all the regular challenges of life.

I never imagined that I’d get divorced. I had three kids under five when my husband walked out on us — making his new home on the other side of the ocean. We had to move out of our home because I couldn’t afford it anymore, but over the next seven years, we made a new home for ourselves in a cozy little townhouse. When I finally met Dovid, I felt my prayers were answered.

I was more than thrilled to pack up the kids to move to Australia with him. My kids knew about Dovid but they were shocked when we announced our engagement. Instead of wishing us mazel tov, my oldest slammed the door and ran into her room sobbing. I was furious! I gave her a few minutes but then came into her room and laid things out for her: “This is going to be our new life and you’ll get used to it.” We never discussed it again.

Over the next couple of months, things were pretty tense. My eight-year-old was happy to be able to have a “real” family like her friends, but my two older girls barely spoke to me. I knew that they wanted to stay near their friends and family. But what could I do? I had to get on with my life. Children are supposed to adapt to what their parents choose for them.

The Challenge of Change

All change creates challenge; challenge can also create change. Change forces us to adapt to a new situation, and that adaptation can bring out undeveloped aspects of our personalities. Even ordinary, small changes have this potential. Certainly the large, life-altering changes routinely produce this effect in both positive and negative ways. People can discover internal resources they never knew they had or develop new ones — or they may freeze, desperately trying to hold on to the past.

To a large extent, our inborn nature determines the direction of our initial response to change. There are those who are excited by all things new, and those who retreat from the smallest deviations in their lives. However, circumstances also affect our ability to adjust to change. For example, sudden change is usually hard for almost anyone to handle — gradual change is far easier to adapt to. Additionally, changes that we understand are easier to negotiate than changes that are confusing, and changes that we desire are far easier to manage than changes we don’t want.

Helping Kids Navigate Change

Parents can help children negotiate big transitions more smoothly by utilizing these principles: Give kids generous advance warning, even when you know the child won’t like the upcoming change. Explain why the change is happening and what it will entail in as much detail as possible. When possible, make small adjustments in preparation for the change.

Most important, allow children to speak openly about their resistance to the change without trying to convince them that everything will work out wonderfully. Accepting and validating a child’s unhappiness is the best way to help her deal with the loss and pain she is experiencing. Demanding that a child happily accept a change that is being foisted upon her is the surest way to delay healthy adjustment.

Parents need to be mindful, too, that attention to a child’s adjustment to change is most crucial when the parents themselves are also experiencing the change. Kids — whether they express complaints or not — have deep feelings that easily lodge into the trauma sections of their brains. Help prevent this by consciously and carefully helping them negotiate big life changes.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 585)