Transitions are a part of your child’s daily life. Some are small and routine, like waking up or coming to a meal. Others are big and novel, like going to a new school or traveling. Each child is affected by transitions in a different way. For example, some children have an easy time saying goodbye while others find it difficult. Research has found that children experience the stress of transitions just as adults do, so being able to help our children navigate both big and small transitions can be a useful too.
People and children often feel ambivalent about transitions and big transitions can bring up powerful feelings. As parents it is our job to help our children navigate through these times of change. To do this, a parent must first understand how they feel so that their feelings do not complicate the transition. For example, if the transition brings up feelings like guilt, sadness, excitement or pride, a parents must recognize this and then manage their feelings so they don’t impact their child’s process. Once a parent understands and contains their own feelings they can help their child more effectively.
To anchor oneself, a parent can view transitions as opportunities for growth. Children can master new skills and move towards independence. Even difficult transitions can be viewed through the lens of growth. Ultimately as parents we will not always be with our children, so the more we can model and help our children build their own skills the more secure we can feel when they navigate transitions on their own.
Tools to help children through transitions:
– Use reflective listening. Listen for the meaning behind your child’s words and behaviors. For example, simple statements like “it can be scary to try new things” can go a long way.
– Hold the confidence. Your child needs to know that you believe in them and trust the process of growth. If something goes wrong, acknowledge it without making a big deal of it. Work to maintain a demeanor and tone of warmth, calm, positivity, and confidence that your child can internalize and rely on.
– Lighten the load. Don’t burden your child with your own feelings or with an adult perspective of the situation. For example, a 3 year old does not experience divorce the same way adults do, so find ways to keep their load age appropriate and even lighten the emotional impact.
– Use different strategies. You can use a sense of fun, curiosity, empathy, encouragement, incentives and more. Watch to see what strategies your child responds to.
– Don’t ask too many questions before or during a transition, especially with younger children. Questions can signal a parent’s anxiety and create anxiety in the child. Instead focus on reflective listening and holding the confidence.
– Ask open-ended questions when you do ask. Open-ended questions are those that encourage longer, more thoughtful answers that rely on one’s own knowledge, thoughts, and feelings. For example, “what will you miss about school” or “what worries you about this process?”.
– Check in with your child. Create a special ‘chit-chat’ time, like on the way home or before bed. Use this time to ask a few open-ended questions. This gives your child a chance to share and for you to know how they are feeling.
– Share similar experiences from your own life. Make sure what you are sharing is age appropriate and does not create more anxiety but rather signals that you understand and made it through the transition.
– Share information. Explain what is happening and what your child can expect. This can be done for big transitions as well as daily ones. For example, at breakfast talk about what that day holds for your child. “After breakfast you will get dressed, Daddy will take you to school. I will pick you up and then we will go visit grandma before coming home for dinner, bath and bed.”
– Create routines for daily transitions that may be challenging. For example, saying goodbye can create angst in children. Make a ritual out of it. Sing a song or give a special handshake that only happens with goodbyes.
– Let your children express themselves. Children want to let parents know how they feel. They also need to have an outlet for their frustrations and disappointments. Young children often express themselves by protesting, crying and whining. Allow your child the space to do this while continuing to move through the transition.
– Remember your anchor, that transitions are opportunities for growth. Opportunities to learn new skills, cultivate independence, and teach children to evolve into adults who can handle life’s transitions even when we are no longer there to help them.