Transitions (AKA change) is a normal part of life. Most of us know that change is unavoidable and can even be a good thing. As adults we can see how change can be an opportunity for growth and we welcome certain life changes. Children, however, thrive on routine and consistency. Even transitioning from playing a game to getting ready for bed is a huge deal for them. Obviously a new sibling, a change in school, or a loss (just to name a few) are going to have a big impact. Let’s take the very difficult transition of divorce. One of my dearest friends told me the other day that her young daughter who is usually “happy go lucky” was tearfully asking my friend why she can’t just have a “normal family”. My friend was taken off guard since the divorce happened a while ago. She was not sure how to respond. It’s hard to explain to an elementary school age child that there is no such thing as a “normal family”. (This was lesson number one in my graduate family therapy class). So how do we help our children cope with major life transitions when all they want is for everything in their world to stay the same. Here are a few things for us parents to keep in mind:
Be honest and straightforward. Explain things as clearly as you can depending on the child’s age. Let them know what to expect and exactly how things will be different. Let them know that feelings of sadness, anger and stress are normal. Whatever the change let them know that it is a natural part of life. Assure them that you are there to talk with them and help with whatever feelings are coming up. Both parents being on the same page helps too so talk about how to explain what is happening before talking to the kids jointly.
Understand that sometimes they just need to protest. Of course this is often not very fun for us as the parent. The protest may come in the form of a tantrum or tears (and usually not at a very convenient time) but the feelings behind them are worth listening to. Children need to feel understood. They need to be able to express their sadness, anger, disappointment etc. They need reassurance. Ask questions like, “how are you feeling about your friend moving?” Then really listen... Try to see things from their point of view and let them know that you understand. They may need a little more from you right now so give extra hugs freely.
Stay firm on the things that can stay the same. Everything in their world is in flux so it might seem like a time to be lenient about bedtimes, rules etc. You might think that they are going through so much a third helping of ice cream is ok. For adults transitions can be an opportunity to start new patterns, but for kids who crave structure, keeping the usual rules in tact is a good thing. That being said, if they do break the rules from time to time, be flexible and allow time for them to get used to the new situation. However, if problems don’t lessen or get worse over time consider professional help.
Keep it real in terms of expectations. There are going to be difficult times. Some days will be harder than others. Remember that things were one way for a long time so it might take a long time to adjust to the new way. Be patient with your child as much as possible. Regression is normal but most likely temporary.
Don’t neglect yourself. It’s impossible to really be there for our kids when we are not coping well with our own feelings about the transition. Positive or negative we all need support at times. Know it is tough to do it all on your own. It’s ok to ask for help either from a friend, family member or a professional.
With time, patience and positivity you and your child will be able to discover your Best Selves Yet!