Ask the Expert: Helping children and caregivers navigate change

An educational psychologist at IU East offers tips to children, parents and caregivers on managing stress during times of transition

As a former school psychologist with expertise on managing stress and anxiety in children, parents and caregivers, Jerry Wilde is familiar with the challenges that changes in routine can place upon families during times of transition.

Jerry WildeView print quality image
Jerry Wilde. Hali Cartee, IU East

Although school or college graduation -- or simply moving up a grade -- are important opportunities to celebrate, they're also a challenging time for children, caregivers and parents alike as children prepare to enter a new grade or school or enter the workforce, and adults face the prospect of children growing up, moving out, permanently departing -- or returning to -- the nest.

The author of "Hot Stuff to Help Kids: A Guide for Angry, Anxious, or Stressed Students" as well as professor and dean of the School of Education at Indiana University East, Wilde provides these insights for parents and kids about how to navigate change without flaring tempers:

What are some stressors that children, parents and caregivers face during the end of the school year?

"The end of the year is always stressful because there are usually a lot of events taking place. It's a challenge just to be able to meet all the deadlines and expectations. For adolescents, there are often banquets or ceremonies. For younger kids, summer activities are starting up, so parents are managing school schedules and after-school activities. For college students, finals can be overwhelming. There are also questions like, 'Where am I working?' 'Am I moving back home or staying at school?' 'If I am moving home, how am I going to get all my stuff home?' There is a lot going on in a brief amount of time."

How can parents or caregivers help children cope with stressors related to entering a new school or going up a grade?

"In our family, we always tried to find a time to go visit the new classroom or school prior to the start of the year. When my son was moving into middle school, for example, he was concerned about getting lost in a new building. He was worried about finding his classrooms and his locker. So, I called the school and asked if we could come in for a visit, which helped him a lot. I would encourage other parents or caregivers to call the school about a visit if that is something they feel that might also ease the tension for their child.

"Additionally, parents and caregivers can provide children a lot of reassurance that every year is a new adventure. They can remind students that they have had a new grade level and new teacher every single year and this new routine will feel normal in a few days or weeks. I would also encourage them to remind students that some of their favorite teachers at one point were new to them. I think it's a good idea to give permission for nervous feelings but remind students that they have handled these types of changes before."

What are some common fears teens experience as they prepare to enter college? What are some techniques they can use to cope?

"I teach a course called First-Year Seminar, which is required on all IU campuses, so I have firsthand knowledge of the types of concerns students have when they start college. It often starts with a fear of the unknown. Even though many students have college credit when they arrive, they don't know what to expect in college classes. Personally, I always find it humorous that they say their high school teachers claim their college instructors won't care if they pass or fail or come to class. Of course, that's not at all true. College professors care a lot about our students. We're invested in their success."

How can the parents and caregivers of older teens manage the emotions that come with seeing children "leaving the nest"?

"Children leaving the nest is an adjustment for parents too. It's often a mixture of emotions. Pride over their adolescents' accomplishments. Concern about the decisions they will make on their own. Happiness in seeing them move onto the next stage of life. I've gone through all those emotions myself and what's helped is reminding myself that children growing up and leaving the nest is how it's supposed to work. That's the goal! We want our children to be successful in high school so they're able to pursue a field of study that excites them."

How can parents prepare for potential conflicts that may arise from suddenly having children home more during the summer?

"The best course of action requires open and honest communication. The transition back home is especially challenging from the perspective of a college student who has grown used to living on their own and making their own decisions. I highly recommend talking about these issues and discussing expectations.

"For instance, when our daughter returned home from IU Bloomington, she was certain that her mother and I would have the same curfew and rules as when she was in high school. We didn't. She'd been on her own for almost a year and grown up quite a bit. But we needed her to understand that other people live in the house and that she needed to be mindful of our sleep and work schedules. It was a series of conversations that made the transition smooth. Open and honest conversation should always be the foundation of resolving any conflicts."

Additional information

For more insights from Wilde, check out his recent interview about how schools can support teachers' mental health with "The Frazzled Teacher," a podcast produced by the Tommy Renfro, a lecturer for the IU East School of Education.