Podcast: Raising Kids That Adapt To Change

Jenn talks to Julie Cullen about best practices for teaching our kids how to deal with change. Julie explains methods of providing extra support when kids need it most, shares ways to make change easier to understand and adjust to, and answers audience questions about navigating change that both children and parents can benefit from.

Julie B. Cullen, LICSW, EdM, is a licensed social worker with over a decade of experience providing individual, group, and family therapy to children, adolescents, and their families. Julie has intensive training in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and has worked extensively with clinicians from The Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, using their ARC model of trauma treatment.

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Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

Hi, folks. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Thank you so much for joining us wherever you’re located in the world, whatever the weather looks like there and in Boston right now it’s pretty overcast, so hopefully better weather than what we have for our conversation about “Raising Kids That Adapt to Change.”

I’m Jenn Kearney. I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital and I’m joined by the lovely Julie Cullen today.

And before we get started and I start throwing questions Julie’s way I just want to address, change is totally inevitable, right? But because of that, it’s important for us to teach our loved ones how to deal with it.

I know plenty of adults, myself included, that at times are change-averse. Who wouldn’t be? It’s new, it’s unfamiliar. Sometimes it’s kind of exciting, but oftentimes it can be unwelcome and it can put a kink in our plans that makes us have to reevaluate a lot more than like, I don’t know, what we’re having for lunch.

And while some changes are going to be bigger than others, all of them can be scary, monumental, life-shattering to a child or teenager. So how can we help our kids feel more secure and in control of their environment, even when there are big changes happening?

So I’m so excited to have Julie with me today because we’re going to talk about methods of providing extra support when kids need it most, ways to make change easier to both understand and adjust to, and how we can navigate change in a way that the whole family, yes, both kids and parents, can benefit from?

So if you are unfamiliar with her, I’m so excited to introduce you to her. Julie Cullen is a licensed social worker with a master’s in education and over a decade of experience in providing individual, group, and family therapy for children, adolescents, and their families.

She has intensive training in dialectical behavior therapy. Often we refer to it as DBT. If you hear that in our conversation, that’s what it stands for. And she’s worked extensively with clinicians from The Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts using their ARC model of trauma treatment.

So Julie, thank you so much for joining me again.

Julie: Thanks for having me.

Jenn: So nice to see you. I’m going to ask you a really loaded question to start.

Julie: Alright. Go for it.

Jenn: Why is it so important for our kids to be able to adapt to change?

Julie: Well, I think a big piece of this you kind of started with in your introduction and it’s just simply because change happens all the time.

There’s no way to go through life without having to experience change, big change, little change, daily change, major change, expected change and unexpected change. There are all different things that happen as we go through our journey through life.

And if we struggle to adapt to change, then it makes all of those pieces harder. It makes it harder to go to school. It makes it harder if we have to move. It makes it harder if the agenda changes for the day.

I always kind of think back to when my kids were little, there was sort of this push to get the kids on a schedule and we want to get a schedule in place. And that was really important.

And yet then shortly after that, we start to get to this place where we’re like, “Well, wait, but we need them to be able to, like, be flexible.” And that concept of being flexible is that concept of adapting to change, that’s the small change.

And so, as our kids can make those small changes, it makes the bigger changes a little bit easier because they’re comfortable with that state of unpredictability. But basically, change happens. And if we don’t prepare for it or if we don’t react well to it, then it just makes life a lot harder.

Jenn: So what would be some of the reasons then as to why a kid might not like change? I know you had mentioned the schedule thing and, like, having that regimen getting disrupted makes total sense, but what other factors might contribute to that?

Julie: So I think it comes down to safety and control. We feel in control when we know what’s going to happen. We feel in control and we feel safe when things are the same, when things are predictable.

This was the big difficulty over the last couple years with the pandemic was just, everything felt unpredictable and nobody knew what was going on, or what was going to happen, or how it was going to play out and it was like a constant state of change.

Every couple of months everything changed and we had to readjust and adapt and take in a different set of guidelines and a different set of rules, and that didn’t feel safe and it didn’t feel predictable.

And really when we struggle with change, we struggle with change because we don’t know what to expect, and that feels scary. So it’s that fear, it’s that anticipation, the sort of worry thoughts around, what if? What could happen? What’s the worst case scenario?

And unfortunately for a lot of us, we go right to, “Oh, things are going to be different and here’s why it’s going to be terrible.” And so a lot of adapting to change is learning to reframe that and see change from a different perspective, in a way that’s not so scary so that we can feel in control.

Jenn: Oftentimes I know that there’s a parallel that’s made between feeling in control or out of control, coupled with that what if, or catastrophizing mindset and anxiety. Is there a link between anxiety in kids and kids being change-resistant?

Julie: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s the emotion that kids and adults, all of us, when we’re struggling with change, we’re struggling with change because we’re anxious about what’s coming.

So there is typically a piece of what’s happening is, is that anxious response. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what’s coming. I don’t know what this looks like. I can’t picture myself in that situation.”

I talk about this with college kids a lot or, not college, seniors in high school planning to go to college in the fall and there’s this sort of like panic because this huge change is coming.

And while every year we go to a different grade and have different teachers and different people in our class, we can picture ourself in the school building. We know what that looks like.

When we’re making that jump from high school to college, no clue what that looks like, particularly for kids who, for whatever reason, haven’t had a chance to visit the campus, or it’s been a while, or when they went, they didn’t go to this particular building or they didn’t see the dorm they’re going to live in.

And there’s all of this anxiety about what that’s going to look like. And again, will I be safe? I feel out of control around what’s going to happen.

Jenn: So how could parents help address that anxiety in kids, that, like, uncertainty, fear of the unknown, to help lower their stress response and in turn, help them become less change-averse?

Julie: So I really feel like there’s a couple of layers. One is starting from the beginning. Yes, our kids need a schedule, absolutely, because we need, as adults, a schedule.

We need to know when we can, kind of, get things done and kind of sneak in, I mean, when they’re infants, when we can sneak in a shower, or when we can have something to eat. At the same time, we kind of want to set that up and see where our kids are at in terms of their ability to be flexible with that.

So if we set up a schedule and we kind of have a schedule that’s working, we want to kind of shift and change things every so often, or not even purposefully, but we don’t want to avoid change because it may disrupt the schedule.

And it becomes tricky because there’s so many different factors in how we create that for our kids when they’re young, but one of the things that we tend to do when things are hard is try to protect or avoid.

So if we know that change, or transition, or rift in the schedule, a shift in the schedule is difficult for our kids, we tend to try not to do that, to avoid that change. And so our kids stay very comfortable and very routine and things are easy and we roll through it, but then they haven’t practiced mastering those feelings.

Anxiety in general and difficulty with emotions in general often comes back to this idea of being able to master what that emotion feels like, physically, mentally, cognitively. We’re going to feel all the feelings and everyone has a little anxiety around change.

It’s hard not to have anxiety around change, but can we feel those feelings and still find a way to manage and power through that, and still do the things that we need to do?

So if a play date is going to push, a play date for your older child is going to push nap time a little later for your younger child and you’re nervous, “But that’s not our schedule,” it’s okay to do that and to work with your child around what the change in schedule feels like.

So that piece comes down to just not avoiding change. That looks a little bit different as we get older, but sort of in the early stages, not avoiding change for the sake of the schedule, if the change in schedule makes sense in other aspects.

We don’t need to incorporate change for the sake of incorporating it, but rolling with life the way we have to roll with life. Teaching our kids that sometimes we have a plan and it changes.

I think the second piece is, is anticipating change that we can anticipate and looking ahead and preparing our kids for those things. In my house, we have a whiteboard and the whiteboard we call it the big board and it’s the schedule for the week.

And the schedule for the week goes up on Sunday night or Monday morning and 9 times out of 10, by Wednesday, it’s wrong, because things change, you know?

Jenn: Yeah, I mean, you know what they say about the best-laid plans, right?

Julie: Absolutely, but if I don’t do it, then nobody knows what going on at all, and then that’s chaos as well.

So we do it, we get the plan up there. We anticipate what the week’s going to look like, but then inevitably an extra practice gets added. Somebody breaks their wrist.

Whatever happens, happens, because that’s how life is, but we have sort of the basis. This is the plan. This is the agenda. This is how we’d like to get through the week, if we can.

Like I said, by Wednesday, 99% of the time, it’s not correct anymore. And I don’t go back and change it ‘cause I don’t remember and because also that’s not the point. The point is to have a rough estimate so that we can say to our kids, okay, Monday, or for example, Tuesdays in my house for a while were pretty chaotic.

So Tuesdays, the kids would come home from school. One had baseball, one had hockey. I was working, they were getting a ride. Somebody was picking up here and dropping off here.

And so that all needed to be laid out and that way the kids could kind of look at that and be like, “Okay, here’s where I need to do my homework. Okay, do I have time to go to the park with my friend right now?” “Alright, I want to start this video game. Do I have time to do that or should I wait until after I get back?”

And they can kind of have a little bit of control and flexibility over those pieces of their schedule, but that way they can anticipate the transitions that are coming up. I know that this is going to be happening soon.

And then also when inevitably the rough plan blows up, we do talk about that. I may not change it on the board, but we have a conversation and we anticipate what that’s going to look like.

“Okay, hey, next Thursday, they just added this practice. So instead of going to so-and-so’s house, we’re going to have to be home so that you can have something to eat and get ready and be ready for your ride.”

So it’s talking through and narrating and anticipating what’s coming up. And then the third piece is allowing for the emotion. When we present change to our kids, understand that there’s probably going to be a response.

“No, I’m sorry, we’re not going away this weekend because it’s raining. So we can’t ski. So we’re going to stay home instead.” There’s going to be a response to that. They’re going to have feelings about that. They’re going to be upset about that.

And I think one of the ways that we can help our kids not feel anxious about change in the future is by accepting their feelings in that moment and helping them through their feelings in that moment.

Because if our kids express disappointment, or upset over plans changing, or something being different than they expected and we become angry, the next time they feel those feelings, they’re not going to express them.

And then they’re going to be anxious about change that’s coming, not just because of the change, but because they don’t know what to do in that moment with those feelings.

So I think the anticipation, sort of the allowing for flexibility and change throughout our day-to-day life, anticipating what we can and accepting and talking about the big feelings that come up when change does happen are sort of three of our big, early keys to helping our kids really be able to adapt to those bigger changes as they come in the future.

Jenn: I know that you have two kids and they’re-

Julie: Yes.

Jenn: Are they both under 10?

Julie: 12 and 9.

Jenn: Okay, I was close. My apologies. I know that’s a good age to be laying out the week for them, saying that there’s going to be some changes.

It’s effectively, by Wednesday, it’s, to paraphrase you, it’s organized chaos, but at what age can we start introducing these transitions and flexibility in schedules and getting our kids involved, informed in them? Like, is there a threshold of when we can start this?

Julie: I mean, I think right from the... I can remember having a conversation with my youngest when he was about three and we were in the car and he was asking, “What are we doing today? What’s our schedule?” ‘Cause again, we’ve sort of always had kind of a plan. “What’s the plan?”

So we went over what the day was going to look like. And he said, “Well, what about tomorrow?” And we talked about tomorrow, and “Well, what about the day after that?” and we talked about the day after that.

“Okay. And what about the day after that?” And I said, “Now you’re getting a little ahead of me. And I can’t answer that.” I think we actually may have gotten a couple weeks out and I was like, “You’re pushing into the next month, kid. I don’t know what’s happening that day.”

But I think that we can always be having these conversations with our kids, no matter what the age is. When our kids are infants, or toddlers, one, two, three years old, we may be having conversations at a different level.

We may not be spelling things out quite as clearly, but we may be having conversations with our kids as toddlers about, “Okay, it’s snack time. Here’s what we do at snack time. Oh, look, today at snack time, we have a friend.” That’s a little different.

“Oh, this is different from our normal snack time, but how awesome is it that we have this change happening, right? This is such a fun thing.” We also, some of it is not even about talking with our kids, but what we’re modeling for them in the way that we manage our change and disruption.

So if something changes, if something gets canceled, if we have a shift in what we’re doing, our job changes, we decide to move, or we have a loss in the family, these are all big changes and transitions.

And the way that we as adults and parents handle those changes and transitions goes a long way in helping our kids learn what to do in those moments.

So even very early on, having a sibling when my youngest was two, and we found out that we were pregnant, my oldest was two, we found out we were pregnant with my youngest, that’s a huge transition for him.

He’s going to be a big brother. There’s going to be another person in the house. That person is going to have needs. It’s not going to be all about him anymore. So he’s two, but we need to have that conversation. We can’t just pretend that that’s not a big change.

And so I think that sometimes too, with some of the normal changes in life, we almost sort of don’t think about it as a change. And so we sometimes miss some cues or signs that it’s a stressful event for our kids.

I think of a sibling as sort of a big one, because I think as parents, we’re excited. We’re typically like, “Oh, this is such a great time,” and not realizing that for our little ones at that point, like, oh my goodness, this changes their entire existence.

They have only been alive for two years and this is all they’ve ever known. And having had an older son, the schedule was all about him. He didn’t want to do something, there was no one to argue that. And so that was going to shift and change.

So we had to sort of prepare him for that and think about that, and what’s that going to look like. And changing from the toddler bed to the big boy bed so we could take the crib into the baby’s room and all of those different things.

Those are places to have conversations with kids and to let kids express their feelings about that. I remember Tommy saying to me, “I don’t like this big bed. I want my little bed back,” and I said, “I get it. This bed feels huge.”

He went from, like, a little toddler bed to a full size bed, he was swimming in it. “This bed feels huge.” It’s going to take a little time to get used to all this room. “Are there some cool things that you can do with a bigger bed?”

So then we’re sort of like, let’s acknowledge the feeling. Let’s talk about the change that’s happening and let’s think about some other good things that might be happening. We can think about the pros and cons of this change.

We can acknowledge the fact that there is good and bad in every situation that we encounter, but these are conversations you can have with kids at all ages. The language, the verbiage might be a little bit different ‘cause how we talk to our kids at different stages is different but the concepts can still be there.

And then again, how we model and how we adjust to that, what are we doing, are we panicking? Are we like, “Oh my god, like how?”

Or are we having conversations about, “While this part’s going to be really hard, and I’m really excited for this other part,” and modeling that there’s good and bad in all of the changes that we experience.

Jenn: I know that you had alluded to some of the signs of your younger son, your older son rather when he was younger, not really feeling great about the changes that were being implemented, like having a larger bed, which when he becomes an adult, no bed is big enough.

Julie: Right. Yep.

Jenn: I’m curious, what’s some of the other signs other than, like, vocalizing it, saying, “I don’t like this, I’m uncomfortable,” what are some other signs that a kid might not be taking change well, whether, there’s a sliding spectrum of how big the change is.

And then a follow-up question would be, do these signs look different depending on how old the kid is?

Julie: Sure, so obviously, sometimes kids are very verbal and will say, “I don’t like this.” Sometimes they won’t. Sometimes we see if it’s more of a sort of day-to-day transition type change.

We might see kids being resistant to stopping what they’re doing and shifting to the next activity, kids who have to leave the house and they’re running around the house screaming or playing and not being willing to disengage from whatever it is that they’re doing.

They’re avoiding, they’re attempting to avoid not having to do that thing. “If I just keep sitting here, how are they going to make me go?”

I think some of the other things we see is kids who, in sort of the early elementary age group, kids who struggle with things like going to birthday parties or leaving for school in the morning, leaving mom.

Something we’re seeing quite a bit of right now in elementary school age is that sort of separation anxiety around transitions and change, which for a long time, we would see it in elementary ages, but it was typically a younger behavior.

It was typically preschool, maybe kindergarten, but by solid elementary school years, kids knew how to get out of the car or off the bus and go to school. We’re seeing a lot more of that elementary age separation anxiety right now because kids have been home for a while.

It’s starting to ease a bit, but it’s definitely more of an issue in that age group than it has been in the past, but that’s another sign of that fear of change and things being different. And I think it comes out behaviorally, kids can get aggressive, kids can get angry.

Kids can become oppositional around it. “I’m not doing that. You can’t make me go.” And then I think when we get into the older, sort of teenage, high school age groups, I think the avoidance and the defiance can really be our key indicators.

If it’s something like a move where kids have to go and there’s, like, no choice and they’re angry about it, we see disruptions in relationship, kids stop talking. They’re not talking to their parents ‘cause they’re angry with their parents.

So disruption in those connections. Withdrawal, not really being willing to go out and do the things that they enjoy doing or connect with the people they enjoy connecting with. Kids can really kind of internalize a lot of the frustration about change.

Depending on the situation, we can see grades drop, we can see friendships change, we can see at-risk behaviors increase. This is why sort of my perspective is always like, the more proactive we can be, the better.

The earlier we start, the less we have to worry about some of those reactions as kids get older. But sometimes we think that we’ve done that proactive work and we’ve incorporated change and we’ve done all those things and we get to a big change and it still hits a kid tough.

Because things like a move, or a friendship change, or some of the more social changes that happen to kids as they get older, those things can sometimes feel like they come out nowhere. And I think those are times when we see kids internalize and start avoiding and withdrawing. I think... I’m sorry. What was the second part of your question?

Jenn: It was actually, do these signs tend to change with age?

Julie: Oh, gotcha. I was like, I thought there’s... So I mean, yeah, I mean, I think that that’s kind of what we see. Like, if we see it in a younger kid, it’s more of like, sometimes it’s verbal.

Sometimes it’s like tantrum-y kind of behaviors. As kids get older, it becomes more internal and withdrawn and sort of seen more in challenging behaviors and oppositionality.

Jenn: One of the things I’m curious about, especially for, like, a teenager, young adult population is turning discussions with your kids of that age into a dialogue ‘cause a lot of times I imagine that it feels like you’re being talked at, not talked to or with.

I mean, listen, we’ve all been there.

Julie: Yes.

Jenn: So how could parents or caretakers actually turn a talk about changes into a dialogue? What are some, like, key phrases that they could use to get their kid to maybe open up to them?

Julie: Sure, so I’m starting to enter this world now with my 12-year-old, he’ll be 13 in June, and every once in a while, I’m like, “I’ve not stopped talking for like 10 minutes. Do you have anything to add to this conversation?”

I often will say to kids, “I want this to be a conversation. I don’t want to be talking at you. I can tell you all the things, but I don’t think that’s helpful.” I invite kids to tell me how they’re feeling. “What’s going on for you right now?”

Also, I often will avoid saying, “How do you feel?” because that doesn’t always go well. “What’s going on for you right now?” is something that I’ll ask kids or “I’m wondering what that makes you think about.”

I find when I say to teenagers, “What are you thinking right now?” they’re like, “I don’t know.” For my own son, I often get, “I’m thinking this is dumb. I’m thinking I want to go back and play my video games.”

So I’ll kind of shift it a little bit and just wonder what they’re thinking about. “I wonder how this feels for you. This is a really big change. It’s going to be different. I know how it’s impacting me. I wonder if it’s impacting you at all.”

Again, this is another place where we can model and explain our own experience. “Here’s how this is feeling for me right now. I wonder how it’s feeling for you.” I wonder a lot with kids.

I wonder and I’m curious a lot with kids because when, when adults directly address kids around, “How do you feel? What do you think? What do you need?”

I feel, teenagers tend to get defensive and sort of suspicious. “What are you getting at here? If I say this, am I locked in?” So I’ll often start with, “I wonder,” and “I’m curious” because I feel like that’s, like, inviting them to give me their perspective, not necessarily looking for fact or plan or truth or anything concrete.

I think a lot of times kids don’t have words. They don’t know. So I think that that’s typically the best approach with that age group.

Sort of like, first of all, acknowledging, “I don’t want to talk at you. That doesn’t feel good for you. It doesn’t help you. And it doesn’t feel good for me. I want to have a conversation about this. It is important. I have some pretty big feelings about it. I’m wondering what yours are.”

And then in sort of talking through and planning for change, I’m inviting kids.

I really like for these types of situations and for these age groups in general, whether it’s big change, whether it’s we need to change our routines because things aren’t working in the house, it’s too conflictual, we’re arguing too much, there’s too much redirection, I don’t like how our relationship feels.

I really like the collaborative problem solving model of inviting kids to share what they need in a situation, giving kids an idea of what we need as adults in the situation, inviting them to share what their needs are and creating a plan together that may not look exactly how I want it to look and it may not look exactly how they want it to look, but it meets all of the needs and doesn’t push against anyone’s boundaries.

My perfect plan may push against your boundaries in some way. It may not fill all your needs. Your plan may push against my boundaries or not fill all my needs. So what can we do to kind of work together to create something that feels good for both of us and also gets done what we need to get done?

Jenn: So is there a way to actually combine what you’re saying about, “I’m wondering,” “I’m curious”-

Julie: Yeah.

Jenn: with this model, that you’re- finding helpful?

Julie: Absolutely.

Jenn: How can parents do that? Do you have any-

Julie: I think just in, when we’re engaging our kids around their needs, wondering and being curious. So entering a situation and saying...

So for an example of sort of a routine change, if we’re having a hard time in the morning, approaching our kids and being like, “Hey, listen, I don’t know about you, but I have not been thrilled about how the mornings have felt,” and also approaching that from my perspective and not putting anything on them, in that introduction.

Not being like, “Hey, you’re being a pain in the butt in the morning. Could you not act like that?” That’s not going to go well.

So really kind of coming at it from, “My experience in the mornings is that it’s been really challenging and I don’t feel good after you leave and I don’t like how that feels. I’m wondering if we might be able to come up with a better plan.

So what I really need from you in the morning is X. I need you to get up when your alarm goes off. I need you to get dressed, come down and eat breakfast. I’d really love it if you could, it’s the morning, I understand you’re grumpy, you don’t have to be, like, cheerful, but if you could, like, talk to me kindly, that would be great.

What do you need in the morning? What do you need from me in the morning?” Trying to get them to sort of say something, anything. “I need you to back off and not nag me. I need you to let me go through my routine at my own pace.”

“Okay, great. So here’s the thing. So I really want to let you go through your routine at your own pace, I hear that you need that. I really want that to be the case. What do you need from me when I notice that that pace isn’t going to get you out to the bus stop on time?”

So again, kind of coming at it from, like, “So one of my needs is for you to be out at the bus stop. So how do I interact with you around that in a way that meets your need of not nagging you?

Can I hold up a sign? Can I do an interpretive dance? Like, I’ll do anything, but I need to hear from you,” because if I pick it, they may not like it. When it comes to a bigger change, something like moving, your kid is in middle school and you suddenly have to move for some reason, they’re not going to be thrilled about that.

So you can engage your kids using this model by sort of saying, like, “This is a really hard time for us to move. There’s a lot of things that I’m really going to miss and I’m not sure that I’m ready to have to leave yet.

I’m wondering if there are things like that happening for you or things like that, that you’re thinking about? I’m wondering what the hard parts are going to be for you. I’m wondering how we can plan for that.

You play a sport. Can we start looking now online at different leagues and teams and opportunities for you to play your sport in the new place that we’re going? Is it close enough that we could go watch a game and you could maybe meet some of the kids?

Can we find some events or activities that are happening there? Is that something you’d want to do? Is that not? Do you want to go see the school?”

In a situation like that, I might start out by throwing out some ideas, and then I’m going to say, “But I’m wondering what you need. I’m curious about what you think might be helpful. Are there some things you can think about?”

And sometimes the first time you have this conversation with kids around a big change, they’re going to be like, “Nothing, nothing, nothing. I just need to not move. And this is terrible and I hate it all,” but when we’re starting that conversation and we’re offering it in that way, it sort of opens the door.

And often, they can kind of sit back at night, in the shower, whenever they’re sort of in a peaceful moment, they can come up with a couple things and you can come back to that, and they are more open and willing to share.

You’re sort of opening the door with the initial conversation. That’s, the other piece around change and some of these bigger changes and these conversations is they sometimes take a couple of tries.

Kids’ initial reaction may be defensive and angry or scared and withdrawn and unwilling, but if we’re opening the door and saying, “I’m wondering what will make this better for you? Unfortunately, this has to happen. That part isn’t a choice, but how we go about moving forward is. So let me know what you think will help you.”

And then backing off a little bit, giving them some space, letting them think and returning to it when they sort of have had some time to think on it and come up with some ideas. These are all examples, too, of plan change, anticipated change, stuff that we know is coming.

It’s a little trickier when it’s an unexpected change, especially when it’s something that we have to kind of cope with ourselves. Again, hybrid school, not a choice, not an option, a change for everyone, how are we making this work?

Those conversations, we sort of call them, like, emergency conversations and we have to sit down and be like, “Alright, this is what’s happening. It’s happening tomorrow. What are we doing here?” Same sort of format, same sort of idea. The urgency is different.

And that can be tricky ‘cause we, as adults, can kind of get anxious about that and want to create something immediately. Kids may not be ready. And again, so we’re modeling for them.

How are we handling this? Are we getting really amped up and anxious, because then they’re getting really amped up and anxious and they’re not going to be able to do this work.

So when situations happen and it’s a change that’s sudden, that’s one of those places where the first step is really just allowing for and acknowledging those feelings. Let it all out, man. We had a broken wrist recently in my house, which was an unexpected change.

It changed kind of everything for about two weeks. We had hockey games that weekend. We had tryouts coming up. We had playoffs coming up. Lots of tears, lots of big feelings about that.

And that had to come out first, and then we could sort of back up and be like, “Alright, not really a whole lot we can do. This change is happening. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to make this okay?”

We had ups and downs and back and forths, but we inevitably got through it, but those big feelings have to come out first. And if we try to plan before we let the big feelings out, that’s when we sort of get that opposite reaction of pushing the feelings down, not feeling validated, and then becoming anxious about change.

Jenn: One of the things that has stuck out to me about everything that you were just saying for, like, the exercise that you walked us through, the modeling of how we can frame how we’re having this conversation with our kids, first and foremost, we could have this conversation with our partners, like, other adults, we can have it with friends.

I think something about the idea of saying, “I’m wondering” or “I’m curious” and having it take a couple tries is you’re coming from a place of non-judgment, right?

Julie: Yes.

Jenn: So you’re coming to your kid and saying, “This is what I’m thinking and feeling. How are you thinking and feeling about this?” I genuinely want to know. There is no wrong answer.

Julie: Yes.

Jenn: And the fact that it does take a couple tries might actually seem discouraging, but it’s almost like laying the foundation for a house. You don’t want to have two bricks and mansion on top of it.

You want to have enough bricks that eventually you don’t need to say to your kid, “I’m wondering” or “I’m curious.” They’re going to come to you and say, “Here’s how I’m feeling.”

Julie: Yes.

Jenn: It might feel like pulling teeth at first, but you’re going to have a much more long lasting, positive impact as a result of having these conversations that might not feel like they’re actually going anywhere.

Julie: Absolutely, absolutely. And it is exactly that. And that’s why I say, like, my perspective and my bend is always proactive. Get in there sooner rather than later.

Do this about things that aren’t a big deal before you have to do it with something that is a big deal just because talking like this with our kids and helping our kids to express those feelings all the time lays the foundation for having the harder conversations later.

Kids who are comfortable and adapt to change well, now there are all kinds of different factors, but sort of on a general level for typically developing kids, kids who adapt to change well and easily are typically kids that can access and understand and cope with their feelings.

Really, this happens through modeling. My house, we talk about feelings a lot. There’s always a little, “How do you feel about that?”

And I always joke about things like math and my son will come home with math homework and I’m like, “I can’t help you with that. If you want to talk about how you feel about it, I’m on. Otherwise you’re going to have to wait for daddy.”

We talk about feelings a lot. We talk about feelings in places that we probably don’t need to talk about feelings. If we’re sitting on the couch and I just kind of feel off, I might just say that.

“I just kind of feel anxious tonight. I’m not really sure what’s happening, but I’m going to go do X, Y, and Z in order to make myself feel better, and then maybe I’ll play cards with you. Actually I think playing cards with you might really help. I just need to go take a shower first” or “I just need to go do a little meditation for a minute and I will be right back and we’ll do that.”

We talk through that, how am I feeling and what am I doing about it, because I think the difficulty with change is that change feels scary, change feels hard, change feels different and we don’t like those feelings.

Sometimes when I talk to families about anticipating change and preparing for change and modeling change, with younger kids, the other thing that I didn’t mention earlier that I do sometimes with younger kids is we use play to practice change.

So if you are playing dolls with one of your children and you know that there’s something coming up, you might add that into the play, “Oh, my doll is moving. She’s going to move. So she’s really sad right now.” or “She’s really excited ‘cause she’s going to get to go make new friends” or you might add that into the play and see how they react to that.

And you’re going to get a lot of information about how they’re actually thinking and feeling about the upcoming change based on how they react to you putting this into what they’re doing.

With my sons, we would often be playing with Legos and the Lego characters would suddenly be doing things and we’d be labeling feelings and we’d be talking about what they were going to do about that, or my kids always had Imaginex and we had these big castles and knights and all of these different characters and we’d be having battles.

And my oldest would be, like, creating these big battle scenes and I’d be on the other side being like, “My guy’s sad. He feels really sad that you just shot him.”

But we can use those tools as ways to help kids prep for things that are coming up and using that language and showing them that everybody has feelings and we all have to cope with them, and feelings aren’t bad, that kids who can cope with change easier.

Kids that understand that those feelings exist and they’re not bad, they’re just feelings and that they will go away and that right now we need to do something to cope with them. And when that feels normal, then we can really maneuver through whatever comes at us.

Now, some things are bigger than others and some things are harder than others, it’s not always perfect, but when we understand that concept, we know what to do. We know how to maneuver through that moment.

The more proactive we can be, the more normal that feels, the less those conversations later on feel awkward and hard.

Jenn: I do want to acknowledge too, the amount of understated and unspoken value that you yourself bring to your relationship with your kids when saying, “I feel off. Something doesn’t feel right. I need to take 10 minutes for myself and I’m going to come back and hopefully mom’s feeling great.”

I think that a lot of times kids assume parents know everything. They’ve always got it together because a lot of times, the tough conversations, the stress, all of that gets kind of pushed to past bedtime when you’re up at a 11:00 p.m. ruminating about how to keep your kids in a happy and safe environment.

Julie: Right.

Jenn: And I think that having that vulnerability with your kids allows them to then become more resilient, less change-averse adults who can actually speak about their thoughts and feelings and emotions in a constructive way, not just for themselves, but, like, for building future relationships too.

It just makes a much more emotionally balanced kid. I know you mentioned it, but I don’t want to discredit what you’re doing to both help yourself and your loved ones, that’s huge.

Julie: It’s so important that we normalize it. I think it’s awesome and amazing that we’ve normalized mental health in the way that we have over the last few years.

My middle school kids that I work with, they’ll tell me all the time that they all sit at lunch and talk about what their therapists told them. And I think that’s amazing, that middle school girls and even middle school boys can, like, be honest and open about the fact that they talk to somebody so that they feel okay.

I also think at the same time, there is still this idea that feelings are good or bad. And because of that, our kids continue to need to talk to somebody to address their mental health because there is still this idea that there are some feelings that are good feelings and some feelings that are bad feelings.

And so therefore when things are bad, we want to get rid of them. We want to not have them. We want to avoid them. I just read something the other day that said like “avoidance is just prolonged suffering.”

Oh, I can’t remember the end of the quote. It was amazing though, but it was sort of making the point that like, when you avoid something, you’re not really getting rid of it. You’re just sort of, like, waiting for later to deal with it, but then the whole time that you’re waiting for later to deal with it, it’s still there and it still feels bad.

And we do that with these bad emotions ‘cause we think, maybe if I avoid them, they’ll go away. And feelings do go away, but when we push those more difficult feelings down and don’t address them and don’t acknowledge them and don’t validate them for ourselves, that’s when we feel anxious and we feel depressed and we feel angry.

And we become impulsive and we act aggressively and we become defiant and oppositional and all of those things because we’ve got all of this stuff built up inside of us.

There’s a lot of work in the trauma world and talk about the fact that trauma resides in our bodies, that it’s not just about our memories or our feelings or emotions, but it’s like, lives in every cell of our bodies.

And I really feel like we can extrapolate that and say that just emotions in general live in the cells of our bodies. And so if we don’t acknowledge and validate them, they don’t go away. But if we can label them, say what it is, do something with it, it is the wave in the ocean and you do move on to the next one, but we all have every feeling.

And this sort of categorizing as good or bad makes kids feel as though when they’re anxious, or when they’re angry, or when they’re sad, that there’s something wrong with them, that they shouldn’t feel those things ever.

Now we don’t want those things to take over. We don’t want those things to drive the bus all the time and be the way that you see the world, that we don’t want them to dictate your mindset, but everyone’s going to feel those things.

When I talk to anxious kids, particularly teenagers, they’ll say, “Just make it stop. I just don’t want to feel like this anymore.” “Well, we’re not going to do that. That’s not how this works. You will feel anxious.

Let’s do something with that that’s productive and constructive and moves you forward instead of letting it drive the bus and stick with you for every single day all the time, but there are going to be sometimes you feel anxious. And so what do you do in those moments?”

I think it really plays into to this idea of being resilient around change and adapting to change because so much of our inability to adapt to change is connected to an emotional response. When we think about sort of cognitive behavioral therapy and the underpinnings of all of the work that we do, it’s this idea that our thoughts and our feelings and our behaviors are connected.

So if we’re behaving in a way that demonstrates we don’t like change or new, it’s because of the way that we’re thinking and feeling. So if we ignore those parts, we’re sort of missing the boat a little bit.

Jenn: One thing I want to recognize is that sometimes parents, try as they may, you can support your loved ones to the ends of the earth, but what can they do if they themselves as adults are change-averse?

So, like, how can we start building change-accepting behaviors as adults, and also try to instill them in our kids at the same time?

Julie: Yeah, I think the hardest part about being a parent is when you have to parent your kids through stuff that’s hard for you, regardless of what it is.

My 12 year old is very similar to me and I see it all the time and I’m like, “Can you just not act like me please because I don’t know what to tell you about that.”

So I think the first thing is acknowledging it in ourself, being able to say, “I do not like change. Change is very hard for me. I like routine. I like structure. I like things being the same.”

And again, being vulnerable and acknowledging that. “Hey, listen, we have this big change coming up and we’re going to work on it together.” Other sort of regular changes that we have in our lives, we’ve got the start of the school year.

That’s a change every year because we’re going from summer where we’re just like, “Hey, I’ll get up when I get up,” and summer camps and fun outside and sunshine, and we’re going back into routine and school and structure. It’s a hard shift for kids and it can be a hard shift for parents.

There’s sort of, like, light at the end of the tunnel on the end of that change because then they’re at school and there’s a different flow for us at home, but the change itself, getting kids prepared, getting back into our own routines of making lunches and creating the schedule and knowing sports schedules and all of that, we can acknowledge that.

“I don’t like this time of year. This is a really hard time of year. You know what, I think this year, the week before school starts, let’s come up with a plan so that we can all work together to get ready for this change that’s coming and try and work together to see it in a positive way, really focus on the pros, really, like, find the good.”

Also, as hard as it is to parent our kids through our own struggles, I think it can be really helpful for us because we know that we don’t want our kids to have those same struggles. We know we want them to be better and do better and feel better and function better. And so we’re kind of doing it for us, but we’re doing it for them.

And as a parent, for most parents will do anything to make that an easier experience for our kids. Now, this is where, like, sometimes we get into the avoidance because if I know it’s hard for me and I know it’s hard for my kid, I’m going to avoid doing it.

So it’s shifting that mindset to, “I know it’s hard for me and I know it’s hard for my kid and I know it’s an important skill, so we’re going to work on it together.” We do what we can before we have our kids, but there’s always things.

And when it’s our thing and it’s their thing, we do it together. I want my child to be able to manage this more easily. So here’s maybe why I struggle with it and here’s how we’re going to do that different, kind of looking back and doing that work too.

And our kids have their own personalities. So that plays into a lot as well and there’s certainly things that we do a lot of feelings work and talking about feelings and anticipating change and all of that, my kids still have meltdowns and tantrums and struggles and moments.

And my son is still moving into teenage years as a typical developmentally-appropriate snarly, sassy teenager. That’s what’s going to happen. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect and argument-free. It just means that as it’s happening, we’re acknowledging this is hard for me too.

Jenn: I’m curious. I know that you have a preteen in your house and there are going to be some changes that are substantially out of your control. Going through puberty is like a major change that you have no control over that. There’s also going to be constant changes otherwise.

Any advice for when those multiple changes catch up with preteens and they’re withdrawing, having school problems? We had a parent write in asking, is it ever, “too late to close the barn door?”

Julie: No, we can always go back and regroup and, sort of, fresh slate. We’re going to fresh slate this. Let’s figure this out. I think when teens are withdrawing and they’re pulling in, I think we have to find that balance between giving them the space they need and pulling them out of their own heads.

I think this is something that’s very challenging. We know that as teens, kids move from preteen into teen years, they tend to withdraw and isolate, we see it. I see my son go up there, “I’m going to go upstairs and watch TV in my room.”

We just did this last night. “Actually, you’re going to stay down here and hang out with us for 20 more minutes, then you can go upstairs and watch TV in your room,” trying to find that balance, trying to help him learn the balance between like, yes, you do need time and space for yourself.

That is very important, and we need you here too. We need your time. We need your presence. We like having you around. It’s a tricky balance and they push back. And they, particularly, when kids are struggling, seem to withdraw and isolate more.

And the more we approach, the more angry our kids can seem. The more angry our kids seem at our attempts to connect, the more they need us to attempt to connect, but not attempt to fix the problem. And I think that that’s a really important distinction and really, really hard as a parent.

These changes that are happening for them, whether they’re academic changes, whether they’re social changes, whether they are physical changes, these are their challenges. And we can see them. We’ve been through them many times.

There’s lots of times we can look at problems that our teens are having and we can be like, “Oh, if we just do X, Y, and Z, I think this will be better.” If we suggest it, it’s not going to fly. If it’s not coming from them, it’s not going to work anyway.

These are struggles and challenges we know about because we had to go through them and there are certain things about developmental changes in these years that our kids just have to go through.

They have to go through friendship changes. They have to go through physical change. We can’t stop that. There’s nothing we can do about that. So I think the key at this stage in finding that balance is remembering too, that really what we need to do with our kids when these things are happening and we’re noticing these behavioral changes, behavior is communication.

What are they trying to communicate? They’re communicating that they’re having a hard time, that they need support, that they need love.

There are probably problems that they’d love to solve, but if we go in to solve the problems before we communicate and connect, that’s when we’re met with defensiveness and anger. So it is never too late. It is never too late to connect with our kids.

One of the things to remember in these moments is that our kids need our relationship. They don’t need us to be their friend. They need us to be their parent, but they need our relationship.

So they need us to care, and support, and guide, and be there without telling them how to fix the problem. When we get into fix-it mode, that’s where we lose them. It’s really, really hard. It’s something I have to remind myself of.

Even at 12, almost 13, I’m constantly like, “You can’t fix this, you can’t fix this, you can’t fix this, not your problem, not your problem, not your problem.” “I’m here if you want to talk. I want you to sit and watch a show with me. Even if we don’t talk, I want you here with me.

If you’re not going to come down, I’m going to come watch with you. If you won’t leave your room, I’m sitting in your room with you for 20 minutes every single day, because I want you to know that I’m here.”

And so sometimes we’re doing a lot of things to prove our connection and prove our support that feel useless and pointless ‘cause nothing is happening, but they know that we’re there. And that’s what they need when they’re kind of drawing into that place is to know that somebody is there and cares.

“I see that you’re struggling. I see that you’re having a hard time. I know you don’t want to talk about it and that you may not have the words for it. So I’m just going to be here. I’m going to hang out and we’re going to build our relationship. And when you feel ready, you’ll tell me.”

Things like grades and stuff like that, when there’s changes in academic performance and functioning, that can be a little tricky because we also kind of want to catch that before, but a lot of times in those situations, my advice is to get the school connected.

“I can see that you’re struggling in school. I can see that you’re having a hard time with your grades. So we’re going to connect with the guidance office and we’re going to connect with the tutor and we’re going to connect with these other people who are academic people who are going to help you with that.”

With stuff like that, we have to remember that our kids are often beating themselves up and they don’t need us to reiterate how poorly they’re doing. They know. They’re aware. And if we are catching it early on, they still care.

Even sometimes when it’s been a while, they still care. They just don’t know what to do about it and they don’t want us to help because they feel like they’ve disappointed us in not performing well.

And so having to work with us to improve their grades is just reminding them how much they’ve disappointed us, even when we haven’t given them that message. So really when we’re noticing any sort of behavioral change, the first thing is to get in there and reconnect.

“Let’s go out. Let’s go do something, go shopping.” “We’re going to go,” I don’t know, “skiing. We’re going to go for a walk. We’re going to go do something. We’re going to go to dinner.” But that one-on-one time and that unwavering support.

“Regardless of how sassy and snarly you want to act, I’m still going to sit here for 20 minutes, even if you yell at me the whole time. And then I’m going to leave and I’m going to tell you, I didn’t really care for that, but I’m coming back.”

I mean, I think when kids are little and they act like that, we sort of want to step away and be like, “I can’t hang out if you’re going to talk to me like that.” When they’re older, it’s like, that’s when we need to approach them more because if they’re talking to us like that, then they’re hurting.

Jenn: So I do want to be mindful of the fact that we’ve gone over the hour. So Julie, like you had said to your son, I like your presence, I like spending time with you. Thank you so much. This has been such a joy and I have learned so much.

I hope folks tuning in have done the same. If anybody is tuning in, this actually ends our session. So until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. So thank you again, Julie, and thanks folks. Have a great day.

Julie: Thanks so much for having me.

Jenn: Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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