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  • Arlen Gaines and Meredith Polsky

A New Year: Strategies for supporting children through life’s changes

Image is yellow street sign with words "change ahead"

During the course of a year, most families face new opportunities and unexpected challenges. Some are major life events, like bringing home a new baby, moving to a new home, or grieving the death of a loved one. Others are more minor, but still significant, like making a new friend, starting a new school year or changing jobs. As we turn the page to 2017, here are some ways to think about coping with life changes over the course of the year.

1. Nature of change: Any life transition brings changes in routine. These changes can be stressful, especially for a child with special needs for whom structure and routine bring comfort. Acknowledge the discomfort that change can bring, and maintain routines in whatever ways possible.

2. New questions: With any life change, there are bound to be unforeseen issues, changes to the family system, and new questions from children. Foster open communication and encourage these questions, even if you don’t have all the answers. Encouraging open communication promotes feelings of safety and comfort.

3. Clear language: As you begin to enter new territory, whether it is the death of a loved one, or starting to explain divorce to a child, use the real words. Many children, especially those with special needs, process information in a concrete manner, so avoid euphemisms even if it feels like they might soften the topic. For instance, use the word “died” rather than “passed away” or “lost.”

4. Small moments: It is normal for parents and children to feel overwhelmed with life changes, whether they are positive or grief-related. Remembering to focus on the “little things” can go a long way in coping with the larger changes. Notice if you are both caught in a belly laugh, for example, or if you experience a shared tender moment.

5. YOU: With the focus and energy required to support a child through life changes, it is critical for parents and caregivers to remember to care for themselves! Try to carve out even a few minutes of the day for self-care - perhaps some deep breathing, a walk, or connecting with a friend.

Life changes introduce new challenges, routines, and questions. It is a process to move through these changes, but supporting a child with change now is an invaluable teaching tool for coping with future challenges.

Arlen Grad Gaines is a licensed clinical social worker based in Maryland, USA. With a decade’s experience in hospice social work, she has developed a specialization in supporting families who have children with special needs around the subject of death and dying. She is the co-author of I Have a Question about Death: A Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Special Needs (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

Meredith Englander Polsky, MSW, MS Special Education, founded Matan ( in 2000, and has helped improve Jewish education for thousands of children with special needs. She co-authored I Have a Question about Death: A Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Special Needs (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).