Teens and Transitions: How to Help Your Adolescent Navigate Change

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Teens and Transitions: How to Help Your Adolescent Navigate Change

 “The only thing that is constant is change.” — Heraclitus, Greek philosopher


Change is a natural, expected part of life. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. While some people thrive on change, most experience some level of discomfort around transitions. And some people really struggle when adjusting to a new situation.

For teens, change can be particularly difficult. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of teen transitions is that they’re taking place against a backdrop of change. Their bodies are changing, their social hierarchies and norms are changing … even their relationship with you is changing.

Recognizing Teen Transitions

You might find it easier to brace yourself for some adolescent transitions than for others, especially when you see them coming down the pipeline. After 8th grade graduation, for example, you and your teen know that you have a few months before the transition to high school. Other changes in their lives—like the death of a friend or family member, or divorce—are less predictable. And still other transitions, particularly those that relate to social situations, can be less obvious.

Many teen transitions center around school: returning to school after summer break, advancing to a new grade level, starting in a new school after a geographic move, or beginning middle school or high school. These transitions can be extremely intimidating to an adolescent.

Your child might worry about their social status (Will the cool kids like me? Will I be bullied? Will I have friends to eat lunch with?) … logistics (Will I be able to find my way to class? How will I know which bus is mine?) … and performance (Will I be able to keep up with my homework?). Chances are, these types of concerns are on their minds, whether they’re talking about them or not—and sometimes, whether they’re even conscious of them or not.

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Breakups can be another significant transition for your teen. As adolescents become more independent from you, their social relationships become more central to their lives—and their identity. Even more so than adults, teens judge themselves on how others view them.

Young love may seem cute to you, but these relationships can be very intense. Teens can be devastated when a deep attachment to a boyfriend or girlfriend is severed. In addition to feeling like a profound loss, a breakup can trigger rumors or a fall in popularity. The boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s crowd may no longer consider your teen part of their group, which can be doubly isolating.

10 Ways to Support Your Teen During a Transition

The challenges teens face during a transition can have a ripple effect, impacting their sense of self, their relationships (with peers and with you) and their performance in school.

It’s important to note that the onset of alcohol and drug use is most common during transitions. Adolescents often turn to drugs and alcohol to combat low self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety and depression—and to mentally check out of challenging family situations or school trouble. Many will use substances to ease their social anxiety, to “look cool,” boost their image/reputation and to fit in with a certain crowd.

As the parent of an adolescent, it’s important to recognize the transitions in your child’s life, and to lend support as they navigate through these changes.

Following are 10 specific things you can do to ease the challenges of a transition:

1. Allow for feelings. Teens are going to have a lot of feelings—and they’re going to have a lot of big feelings. It’s important to let them have these feelings.

2. Listen. One of the most helpful things you can do for your adolescent is to listen to their stories, hear their concerns and empathize with their feelings—without judgment.

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3. Preserve routines. As much as possible, try to keep the same morning, after-school, evening and bedtime routines in place. Routines lend familiarity and predictability, which can be threatened during times of transition.

4. Ensure self-care—for both you and your teen. Nutritious meals, quality sleep, exercise and stress management allow you to stay strong, especially during trying times. A lot of teens begin to buck breakfast and push the limits on bedtime; while respecting the changes in their needs and wants, maintain a focus on healthy habits.

5. Maintain boundaries. It’s tempting to loosen the discipline when your child is going through a hard time, but rules and boundaries build trust. Kids know what they can count on, and what they can push against. Be consistent in your parenting, allowing natural consequences and imposing logical consequences when their behavior crosses the line.

6. Offer choices. Teens often feel a lack of control, and even more so during times of transition. Where possible, allow them to voice their opinions, form their own likes and dislikes and make choices.

7. Stay realistically positive. Remind your teen of past accomplishments. You might remind them about the time that they were really anxious about their performance in a school play that went really well, or about a new friend they made on their first day of camp. By doing so, you’re giving your child tangible examples to counter their anxiety in facing this change.

8. Separate your anxiety from theirs. Recognize that you may have unresolved “stuff” from your adolescence that gets triggered by your teen’s experiences. Stay in your own lane, using caution not to blur your journey with theirs. Take an honest look at your feelings, and try to pinpoint the cause of your anxiety—without making it theirs.

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9. Don’t project your worries. As mama lion (or papa bear), you want your child to avoid discomfort—and to succeed. But your concerns about any given transition may not be theirs. Even if you’re worried about your teen making new (and the right) friends, they might not be the least bit concerned—until you plant seeds of doubt by asking anxiety-provoking questions (“Are you nervous about making new friends?”).  

10. Ask for help. If you feel like things are getting out of control, or you see that your teen is so anxious that they’re not sleeping or if you’re worried about drug and alcohol use, reach out to a professional, who can help guide your teen—and you—through a challenging transition.

It can be hard to know what you don’t know—until you’re living through a new parenting experience. Adolescent transitions can be unnerving, but they also facilitate growth—not only for your teen, but also for your relationship with them.

If your teen is struggling through a transition, therapy can help them learn healthy ways to cope with the challenges of change. Click here to learn more about our Adolescent Psychotherapy services.


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