Helping kids manage transition stress

November 13, 2013 | Posted in: High School, Middle Years

Change can be difficult for any of us.

Sometimes it’s sudden and unexpected, such as an unexpected job loss or the death of a loved one. Other times, transitions can be expected, such as children starting school, changing schools or classes as they grow older, and eventually leaving home for a career or college.

Every change, whether it is expected or unexpected, brings with it mixed emotions.

“When there is a big change, there’s opportunity for both excitement and distress,” said Michael Nerney, a consultant in substance abuse prevention and education with more than 30 years’ experience in the field. (In the interest of full disclosure, he’s also my brother-in-law.) Mike has done lots of research on the adolescent brain and has always been an amazing resource for why kids – my own included – behave the way they do.

Last week, Mike spoke to a group of about 100 parents at Saratoga Springs High School about helping children manage stress through transitions.

For our teens, there’s a whole lot going on inside their bodies and their minds that contributes to a heightened level of emotion regarding any transitions. That means we need to be equipped with tools to help them manage stress now and prepare them for the future.

“Transitions equal change, and change equals stress. There is anxiety about the unknown,” Mike said.

When a transition is expected, we should start earlier to talk about the change with a positive approach. “Try to make the unknown known, such as with visits to a new school or a meeting with staff or a new teacher,” said Mike.

We also need to watch our own emotions. “We have to be careful not to falsely present kids with fears,” he said. “There is a contagious aspect.”

Some other things to remember when kids are stressed:

Feelings count. “From about the age of 11 on, research shows that those emotions manifest with two to four times more intensity than for adults,” said Mike.

When we tell our children, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it,” we’re denying their emotions are real or diminishing what they are saying. Saying “ease up” isn’t helpful. Instead, acknowledge their emotions/feelings, and give them a chance to talk about it without inserting your opinion.

Be an active listener. Let a child describe a situation without inserting your opinion or personal anecdote. Talk in a private spot, and offer help and support. “Say, ‘I’m here to listen,’ then stop talking. If they don’t want to talk right then, refresh the offer later,” said Mike. “Articulating negative emotions diminishes the intensity.”

Another consideration: Face-to-face conversation can be too intense for teens. “Have a job, such as folding laundry, while talking. Side-by-side interaction is the best way to communicate.” He also said avoid pressing boys for eye contact. “Eye contact actually increases the emotional intensity in boys,” he added.

Remember the constants. Remind them of what is still the same: routines, family, friends and interests will all still be present even in a transitional time.

“Keep as much of the comfortable routine as possible,” said Mike.

Most importantly, remind children that your love is a constant – no matter what happens, no matter what their grade point average. “What will never change is the love we have for you.”

Mindful meditation. Developing a relaxation response can be helpful to anyone who is trying to manage stress.

“Mindful meditation can lead to behavioral changes and far better concentration,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic offers information on relaxation techniques, or check out information from

Sleep, eat and succeed. “A 10th grade student needs 8.5 to 10.5 hours of sleep a night,” said Mike. The reality is that few get that much. “A 20- to 30-minute nap can make a difference in cognitive ability.”

And remember: “It’s not laziness if they’re sleeping in on the weekend,” he said. “It’s their brain’s ability to catch up some.”

Encourage a child to strive for a healthy diet, rich in protein, iron and omega 3s, and limit caffeine, which can intensify feelings of agitation and anxiety.

And finally, as with any situation with our children, if the anxiety seems extreme, consult a professional for guidance.


Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She is mom to two daughters, ages 17 and 15, and a 9-year-old son.

Tags: , ,