Welcome to NFRC’s new monthly column. Designed to assist counselors, physicians, religious leaders and educators devoted to child and family wellness, this column will provide tips from NFRC’s nationally acclaimed therapists to help children and families in transition.
A FRESH START
Risa Garon, LCSW-C, BCD,CFLE
The beginning of the school year brings an onslaught of excitement and anxiety to children and their families. Besides purchasing school supplies, registering children for school and activity sign ups, many families are getting reorganized themselves. While some children return from camp, others return home from a summer stay at their other parent’s home. It’s readjustment time on all fronts: home, school and peers. Some families face additional adjustments at the start of the new school year because their families are experiencing separation, divorce or remarriage.
You and the children’s parents are concerned about helping the school year to be successful. These tips will provide some insight to the world of children and families in transition that may help to alleviate some of the frustrations that can occur from changes that are occurring simultaneously.
Children may view themselves as different from their peers because of a changed family structure. They have struggled to establish a unique identity that is made more difficult by so many changes and transitions. Children’s involvement with school projects or activities may be limited by:
- Parents’ lack of time and or energy to be involved with children’s needs and interests
- Parents’ inability to provide transportation
- Lack of finances to support activities
- Children’s moves back and forth between parents’ homes
- Children’s sense of competence, based on mastery and productivity may be impaired
- Learning challenges may go undiagnosed and unsatisfactory progress may be incorrectly attributed to emotional problems
What can you do as a professional to assist parents and children? Most of all, try to understand the stresses of being a single parent family or undergoing additional changes in family structure. Listen compassionately and give children a sense of security by creating a safe and stable environment. Some specific ways to help include:
- Support the child by addressing him as an individual with strengths and weaknesses.
- When appropriate, encourage the child to discuss her feelings about the family change.
- Know resources that you can identify and discuss with the child and his parent.
- Be careful not to minimize painful or angry feelings; at the same time, help the child to learn to express feelings in healthy ways.
- Focus on the child’s assets -- encouraging goals and accomplishments that the child is capable of achieving that are separate from the family.
- Enforce rules and consequences because children thrive and feel secure with consistent messages. While anger may be acted out in negative ways toward parents, siblings, teachers and peers, develop a structure to handle disciplinary matters.
- Encourage parents to obtain support from other adults and be available to work with them to establish healthy ways to provide guidance to the children.
- Provide time-out areas for children who are grieving and need a little time out to be away from the tasks at hand and focus on their feelings.
Children experiencing family changes feel better when:
- They see that they are not alone; that other children are experiencing family changes, too.
- Parents explain the changes and what will be happening to the children.
- They are reassured that the family change is not their fault and they will, when appropriate, be able to have a healthy relationship with each parent.
- They know when they will see each parent.
- They are kept out of the middle of parents’ conflict.
- They have opportunities to discuss their feelings and concerns regarding their family.
- They learn ways to solve problems that may seem overwhelming to them.
Most of all, provide children and parents with a sense of hope that change -- though painful and difficult -- can bring new positive experiences in their lives.