What’s new in your life? Are you excited about starting a new school year? Have you recently moved or started a part-time job? Perhaps there’s been a new addition to your family. Maybe you’re thinking about joining a club or trying a different sport.
Many changes are good. Other changes can turn your life upside down. Are you prepared to cope with change?
“Life is a series of changes,” notes Elizabeth Berger, a psychiatrist who wrote Parenting by Heart: How to Stay Connected to Your Child in a Disconnected World. Many changes occur as part of normal growth. Bodies change dramatically when children become adolescents. Changes continue as teens grow to be adults.
Teens’ minds and outlooks change too. The ability to reason and exercise judgment changes as you mature. So do the types of decisions you must make. Interests in dating, friends sports, hobbies, and possible careers develop and change too.
Some changes happen because of choices you make. If you join drama club, for example, that’s a change. Learning to drive is other change. Or someone might get sick.
Other changes are entirely beyond your contol. your parents might lose their jobs. An accident could hppen. Or, someone might get sick.
Change Can Be Stressful
Change of any type requires adapation–a response to handle the new situation. Often the mind perceives changes in routine as a kind of “threat.” That stress can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight responses and send it into “full alert.”
“Even good changes are stressful from an emotional point of view,” notes Berger. For example, Paul was excited to get his driver’s license. But that meant paying for gas, getting insurance, and assuming other responsibilities.
“You’re in charge of getting where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there,” notes Paul. He often has to drive his two brothers places too.
The more changes that occur in a short time period, the more stress people tend to experience. Back in 1967, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe ranked various adult life changes. Death of a spouse topped their scale (“event value” of 100). Next came divorce or separation from a partner, arrest or jail, and personal injury. The more “event value” points people racked up within several months, Holmes and Rahe reasoned, the more likely they were to become ill.
Life changes for teens differ from those of adults, but they’re just as significant psychologically. Major events could include: death of a parent, boyfriend or girlfriend, or another family member; parents’ divorce; puberty; pregnancy; jail or breakup with boyfriend or girlfriend. Again, the more changes within a short period, the more likely that added stresses will take their toll.
More recent research suggests that it’s not just the total number of changes that matter. People’s sense of control over change makes a big difference too. So, even “minor” events can cause substantial stress.
“When there’s a minor adjustment change–just a new teacher in the classroom or a change in routine society is less understanding and less patient with the adjustment,” notes Judy Linger, a psychiatrist at the Center for Emotional and Behavioral Health in Vero Beach, Florida. “People are taken off guard by the fact that there is such a reaction to whatever the loss or adjustment is.” Recognize when change is challenging for you. Then enlist support from people around you.
When Tragedy Strikes
Normal changes cause enough stress. What happens when tragedy strikes?
“Among the most hurtful changes are disappointments from people who you counted on,” says Berger. Divorce is relatively common, she notes, but it can still turn a family upside down.
“Even adults become upset when their parents become divorced,” Linger agrees. “It probably does hit adolescents every bit as hard as it does little ones.”
Teens are resilient and can adjust to many changes, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Paul’s parents divorced three years ago; both are now remarried. “There’s no real answer to it,” says the 17-year-old from Indianapolis. “You just have to think about what it means.”
Death is another major tragedy. Besides suffering several strokes, Amy’s grandmother had cancer. Instead of sending her away to a nursing facility, Amy and her mom cared for the grandmother at home until she died. “That was really a significant loss,” says Amy. “Some days are better than others, but the pain doesn’t go right away.”
“A lingering death is traumatic, but there is a bit of an opportunity to at least get used to the idea,” says Linger. In contrast, Allyn’s dad had a fatal heart attack during her senior year of high school. Mike’s father committed suicide near the end of his freshman year.
“A very sudden or accidental death can generate a lot of anger and a lot of guilt,” says Linger. Teens in these situations need to face the loss of the parent, friend, or family member. They also need to address the other strong emotions stirred up by an untimely death.
Sometimes tragedy strikes on a grand scale. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters can wreak havoc over large areas. At these times, care and support from around the country can help victims in their shared grief.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks killed thousands of victims and forever changed lives across the country. One year later, all of America remembers the tragedy. Yet responses vary.
Many people were affected only indirectly. Like other travelers, Amy must allow extra time when she flies home to Ohio for college breaks. “I know it’s necessary,” she says, “but all the waiting and lines and extra precautions can really be a hassle.”
On the other hand, Amy sees more concern at school about accepting diversity among people. Newsweek reports that student interest in politics and global affairs has shot way up too.
For other people, September 11 struck much closer to home. Seventeen-year-old Chris lives on Long Island, where many people commute into New York City. Almost everyone in his neighborhood knows someone who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks.
“The initial shock may be over, but I expect people are still trying to cope and adjust to the loss,” says Chris. “There’s an ever-present awareness that things are changed permanently.”
Grief–Universal, Yet Unique
Everyone experiences grief at one time or another. Yet each person’s experience of grief is unique. Some people cry a lot. Others feel extremely angry. Some people become withdrawn. Other people start acting wild.
Despite wide variations, experts have identified five major stages of grief:
1. Shock and denial. Not believing the bad news buffers people from reality–but only temporarily. (Recall how the awful video images from September 11 seemed unreal at first.)
2. Anger. Grieving people often feel angry–with them selves, at whomever or whatever ever is gone, at whomever may have caused a loss, or at everyone one in general. Guilt often goes along with anger.
3. Bargaining. People don’t like feeling powerless, so they try to make a deal. (If only Mom’s cancer would go away, Dan might mentally promise not to argue with her anymore.)
4. Depression. When there’s no hope of changing the loss, emptiness and desolation can take over.
5. Acceptance. Eventually, people may accept the loss. After that, they can cherish any good memories and move forward.
Time helps, but there’s no “typical” grieving period. Many schools offer grief counseling. Otherwise, it’s important to find support from friends and trusted adults who will listen non-judgementally.
How to Cope
Even if change doesn’t cause major grief, the stress can be hard to handle. Fortunately, strategies can help you cope.
Here are a few to consider:
* Admit your emotions: “Recognize and acknowledge that these thoughts and feelings are going on,” says Linger. Don’t let stereotypes about being macho, tough, or grown-up bottle up emotions. Face your feelings head on.
* Make a list. “Changes often have the potential for growth and also the potential for a sense of loss,” says Berger. When you foresee a change, list all the good things that might result. Make a list of drawbacks and related losses too.
Chris knew he needed elbow surgery. “Baseball was out of the question for at least six months,” he says. Many activities like driving got temporarily derailed too. “I also knew the pain I was going to be in,” says Chris.
But there was a plus side. “I can’t do anything with my arm right now, but I’m looking forward to when I can,” says Chris. “Knowing that I will be able to throw again and better than before is the only thing that’s keeping me going.”
* Talk, talk, talk. Go out of your way to talk with family and friends. This helps you admit to and process your emotions.
Friends are are always good,” says Paul. Going from junior high to high school was a big change, with more responsibility, tougher classwork, and hectic schedules. Because Paul’s friends were experiencing the same challenges, they relieved stress together by sharing feelings.
Don’t limit yourself to face-to-face talking, says Linger. Talk on the phone. Write letters. Use E-mail and instant messaging to keep in touch with friends too.
* Express yourself artistically. Keep a journal. Write a poem or story. Draw or paint a picture. Compose a song. “Any shaping of the experience is in itself a kind of mastery,” notes Berger. Let your creative talents help you deal with your feelings about change. Share the result with others.
* Be proactive, rather than passive. “People don’t like feeling like something happens to them,” says Berger. Anything you can do to “grab the reins” and gain control helps.
For example, Amy and her mom had no choice about moving when she graduated from high school. But Amy helped clean and show their old home to prospective buyers. Amy helped shop for a new home too. These actions helped Amy plan for and deal with the change. Her mom’s acceptance of the help also told Amy her mom respected her feelings.
* Get involved. “A community activity that addresses some aspect of the loss is also a wonderful coping skill,” notes Linger. Blood drives, fundraising, and other community projects helped many people stop feeling helpless after September 11. Even now, Chris and his friends have stayed involved in volunteer activities that they began last fall. Likewise, walks for breast cancer or other causes can help teens do something positive after a loss.
* Reinforce relationships and values. “What sustains children and adolescents when terrible things happen is the reliability of their love relationships,” stresses Berger. “One survives change because the one thing that is eternal is someone’s love for you.” Let change be a chance to reinforce relationships with family, friends, and other people who care about you.
If you practice a religion, that can also help. Especially after her grandmother died, Amy says her faith gave her comfort.
* Maintain a healthy routine. “Keep some constants in your life,” recommends Amy. “Hang on to what works.” Going away to college was a big change for Amy. Besides staying in touch with family and friends, Amy made sure she ate well and exercised regularly. Getting enough rest helps too.
In contrast, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs spell disaster. These destructive choices harm your mental and physical health. Plus, they make it even harder for you to cope with change. More than ever, say “no” to substance abuse.
* Be patient. Like it or not, coping with change takes time. “Adolescents like instant gratification, and they’re not willing to give themselves a lot of time,” says Linger. Nonetheless, “They should be a little bit gentle with themselves at these times.”
“There’s always a bright side, even if you don’t realize it for a week, a month, or a year,” says Chris. “You and your life will be better.”