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Helping your teenager survive transitions 

By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.

Sarah and Matthew Esslinger remember their experience of transitioning into high school. Photo courtesy Edward Foley Photography.

“Dr. Smith, I’m worried about my daughter. Since starting high school, she’s just not herself. She’s stressed and unhappy. She’s not sleeping, she’s cranky, she’s isolating from friends, and she doesn’t want to go to school. What can I do to help her?”

The teenage years are times of transitions including school-related transitions.  Going from middle to high school and from high school to college can be very stressful. One of the challenges for parents of teenagers is to help them cope effectively with the changes they face. Parents can help their teens with transitions by following these three “psychological” steps.

The first step is to recognize the way your adolescent experiences change. Some people seem to thrive in the face of change, some are more neutral, and some don’t like change much at all. These differences in handling change reflect personality differences. Being sensitive to change is not bad or good, just as thriving in the face of change is not bad or good. However, those who are sensitive to change will benefit from having extra support during times of transition. If you understand your teen’s personality, you can help him or her to develop self-awareness about reactions to change. For instance, you might say “I’ve noticed you like things to stay the same, and it’s hard on you when everything is suddenly different.”

“Surviving a stressful transition helps teens develop resilience, the knowledge that they can handle change and prevail in the face of difficulty.”

The second step is to recognize how you have experienced change in your own life. Are you a person who embraces change and seeks it out, or do you prefer constancy and stability? Did you tend to have a hard time or an easy time dealing with change during childhood and adolescence? Even if you are someone who embraces change, were there times when a major change was unwelcome and hard to bear? Is your style of dealing with change similar to or different from that of your teen? Developing your own self-awareness will help you empathize with your teen’s experience.

The third step is to put your empathy to work. Remind your teen that change can be difficult, but that eventually he or she will adapt. Help your teen name the changes he or she is experiencing. For instance, what is different about high school compared with middle school? What does he or she miss about middle school? When the distinctions between the old and the new are spelled out, your teen can more easily appreciate why the transition seems so hard.

If your teenager is struggling with change, think of a time in your own life when you went through a difficult transition, and tell your teen the story, emphasizing your feelings. For example, “When I went to high school I was scared because I did not know what to expect. I was worried about fitting in, and I was afraid the work was going to be too much for me. It took some time, but once I got used to high school, I realized there were things about it I liked so much better than middle school.”  Be sure to answer your teen’s questions about your experience honestly. If it took you until Christmas to feel good about being in high school, then say so! Adolescents really need to know that their feelings about going through change are normal, and so hearing that Mom or Dad went through (and survived) something similar is powerfully reassuring.

You may certainly be worried that your teen will never adjust! If so, be patient and maintain the belief that, in time, he or she will make it all the way through to the other side of the transition. Continue to be supportive and empathic. Say things like “You’re dealing with some big changes, and change can be hard. It makes perfect sense that you feel overwhelmed now, but you won’t feel this way forever.” You can also say “I think you’re doing a great job coping with all this change, and I’m really proud of you.”

Surviving a stressful transition helps teens develop resilience, the knowledge that they can handle change and prevail in the face of difficulty. Parents can reinforce the lessons learned from successful navigations of change by reminding teens about their past accomplishments: “Remember how hard it was when you started high school? You got through that, and now you really love high school. Why should the process of going to college be any different for you?”

Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in assessment. She is the married mother of two school-aged boys.

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