Helping Your Child Through Transition
Ever since my daughter was small, she has said to me, “We’re NEVER going to move, right, mom?” and I have answered, “I will never make the decision to move without including you in that decision.”
When the time came and I first brought up the idea of moving to my daughter, I was absolutely prepared for a firm “no way!” but she surprised me.
We did make the decision together, and we have had an incredible adventure. There have been ups and downs, for both of us, tears and laughter, loneliness and a sense of loss, growth and the discovery of ourselves as different and stronger and more capable than we were before.
This blog post uses the example of a move to share some keys about how to support a child through transition, but these concepts can apply to any transition – a new sibling, new school, separation or divorce, or something else.
Trust your child to participate in the decision, to whatever extent makes sense in the situation.
Know that unrelated meltdowns are not unrelated. Be on the lookout for connections. For example, your child might one day have a complete meltdown about the brand of ice cream that you just bought. Instead of “It’s just ice cream! You like chocolate!” say things like, “I get it. We’re moving, and half of our stuff is in boxes, and you’re going to have a different house and a different school and different friends, and the last thing you need right now is different ice cream. I get it.” Your child develops resilience when he or she moves through this kind of situation – don’t fix it for them, but be there to listen and understand.
Let your child see you handling the same feelings he or she is experiencing. If you miss your friends, don’t hide your tears. Cry, and teach your child that friendships matter, that it’s hard for you, too, and that you’re okay. If you’re overwhelmed with figuring out where to shop and how to find a dentist and what to do about immigration and importing a car, let your child hear you talk yourself through it. “I have so much to do and I can’t even imagine how I can possibly handle everything! I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow, but right now I am thoroughly overwhelmed!” Put your head on the table on top of your papers, in a classic gesture of exhaustion (might as well enjoy the drama of it), rest for a minute, then sit back up in your chair and show your child as you keep on going.
Take stock of all the newness that your child is experiencing, and realize that it may take months – or even years – to adjust to the new situation. Just because it’s been three months, and you’re mostly settled in, doesn’t mean that your child is fully adjusted. Big changes are felt and understood in waves. A child may get the hang of one aspect of the change quickly, but only feel other aspects of the change much later. (Remember that the toughest time for an older sibling is 6-12 months after the new baby’s birth.)
Be aware of your child’s developmental stage and act accordingly. Regardless of the kind of transition that is happening, a child will feel anchored and grounded in a new situation if developmental needs are being met. If your child is between 1 and 5, he or she is especially focused on the PHYSICAL environment, and on ORDER. Keep things organized, make sure everything has a place, and give your child frequent reminders about the pattern of the day and what will happen next. If your child is between 6 and 12, he or she is especially focused on the SOCIAL environment. Be sure to facilitate lots of playdates and create frequent opportunities to connect with other children in free play and develop friendships. If your child is 12 or older, he or she is focused on both the SOCIAL environment and on finding a PLACE in the broader culture. Be sure to help your teen explore interests and strengths and build connections with peers and across generational boundaries based on shared interests.
A big transition is an opportunity to help a child develop skills and ways of being that will serve them for their lifetime. Resilience and confidence come from managing something that you didn’t know you could manage, figuring out how to handle a new situation, and learning that you get to choose how you respond when things are hard (make no mistake – change IS hard!). When transition is happening, your children look to you to show them how to handle it, and to guide them through, so transition times are also an opportunity to deepen your connection, and deepen the trust between you and your child.
Please share any questions, insights or experiences you’ve had with your child and transition. We’d love to hear!