Here's How To Help Kids Deal With A Changing Family Dynamic
Javi's lengthy deployment officially came to an end during this week's Teen Mom 2 episode, and he reunited with Kailyn, Isaac and Lincoln. And as viewers have seen throughout this season, the young father's return was bound to bring some changes because the couple had opened up about their marital problems, and the mother of two confessed that divorce paperwork had been filed.
While Lincoln is a bit too young to comprehend his parents' decision to permanently separate, Kail made sure to speak to her firstborn (before Javi's arrival) about imminent differences that would be apparent in his day-to-day life. Specifically, the serviceman would no longer be residing at the house.
"If you are with me and you wanted to go see him, we could call him and maybe we could go see him -- he's Lincoln's dad," she explained to a visibly solemn Isaac.
This new living arrangement and Isaac's understanding of what was about to unfold is only one part of the transition the family experienced with Javi's homecoming. However, this type of incident -- a period in one's family which involves a shift -- is not uncommon.
“Family dynamics frequently evolve due to life changes like relocation, deployment, shifts in economic status, divorce or illness. Children and teenagers are very insightful, so it’s important that they aren’t kept in the dark, that they feel part of the transition process and that there’s a consistent routine so their lives feel safe and not out of control,” says Courtney Knowles, a spokesperson for The Jed Foundation, a national nonprofit working to protect emotional health and prevent suicide among teens and young adults.
With this in mind, here are six important points for parents to keep in mind if they find themselves in a situation like Kail and Javi:
As parents, it’s easy to want to protect children from negative or complicated issues like divorce. But kids of all ages are very perceptive. Feeling “out of the loop” can feel frightening for children, so be sure to communicate what’s going on in an age-appropriate way. If the issue involves separation or divorce, try to rise above your relationship problems to communicate consistently as a united front. Make sure to remind children that the changes aren’t their fault and that there’s a plan for moving forward.
2) Create consistent schedules.
Children and teenagers feel safer when their routines are consistent, and they want to expect in the days and months ahead that this will, as much as possible, remain the same. With some dramatic life changes -- like a death or illness in the family -- it can be hard for parents to keep up with all the logistical and emotional tasks on their plate. Even so, it’s important that your children still know what to expect, and that they still have a time and place to be kids, play with their friends and feel like they are an important part of the family unit.
3) Take the high road.
When family changes arise because of relationship problems between the parents, it can add extra strain to the situation. It's important to keep children out of arguments between their parents. Don’t bring up personal issues with the other parent in front of the children. If an issue comes up that needs to be discussed, set that aside and pick a time and a place where you can discuss that alone, without your children present.
4) Watch out for changes in behavior.
It’s not unusual for children of any age to say they understand and are fine with a change in the family dynamic. Sometimes, the signs that they are struggling emotionally come out in different ways: academic problems, aggressive or disruptive behavior, sleep problems, anxiety or depression. If you notice changes in the children’s behavior, don’t just chalk that up as being a phase that will pass once they get accustomed to the changes. Have a conversation with your child about how they are feeling, and let them know they can always talk to you about it. Even if things are chaotic at the moment, there is always time for you to hear what’s on their mind. If you are unsure how to best have that conversation or support your child, reach out to a counselor who can help you navigate that process.
5) Let them express their feelings.
Sometimes, children -- especially older kids and teenagers -- will avoid bringing up how they are feeling because they don’t want to add more stress to the situation, or they feel like they need to be a caregiver for a parent or parents who may also be struggling emotionally. Make it clear that you want to hear what they are thinking and feeling. Talking about it makes you feel better too. If they don’t feel comfortable addressing it with you, encourage them to talk to another family member, a family friend or even a counselor at their school or in your community. Remember that extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) and other friends can be a helpful source of support and consistency for your kids during a tough time for the family.
6) Remember that young children need support too.
Toddlers and young children haven’t yet developed the ability to really process some concepts like divorce or illness. Find resources and tools online for the best ways of communicating with and supporting younger children. Just because they can’t fully understand what is going on, they can sense tension or anxiety, so it’s important not to assume that they are too young to communicate about the issue or change.
Be sure to keep watching Teen Mom 2 every Monday at 9/8c to see how the clan evolves -- and if you’re worried a kid or teen in your life is having trouble coping with change, take action to get him or her the support they need. Learn more about when and how to reach out for help at www.halfofus.com and find out more about supporting teens and young adults who are struggling emotionally at The Jed Foundation’s Mental Health Resource Center.