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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

May 29: Managing Transitions in Family Life

As the end of the school year approaches, many of the conversations I have with children in my practice revolve around upcoming transitions. From children who are moving or changing schools to those who are feeling uncertain about moving up a grade or saying goodbye to a beloved teacher, themes of saying goodbye to the familiar and coping with the uncertainty of the unfamiliar are ever present at this time of year. To be clear, not all children feel worried or upset about these types of life changes, but if your child has expressed distress regarding an upcoming life transition, please read on.

 

When I talk with children who are feeling worried about transitions, I remind them that it makes sense if they are feeling nervous or uncertain about leaving the familiar and entering the unfamiliar. When children are nervous about an upcoming change, it so useful to validate the fact that their feelings match the reality of the situation. That is, it is understandable if children feel worried about making new friends, leaving something well-known, and starting something new.

  •   “Of course you’re nervous about starting a new school. That totally makes sense.”

  • “It makes sense that you’re sad about leaving your friends when we move. This is something totally new for you. Of course you’re feeling uncertain.”

 

When a child expresses distress about an upcoming transition, a parent’s first instinct may be to either provide reassurance or to quickly shift the conversation to focus on the positive (“Sure you’re upset, but the food in the cafeteria at your new school looked so good”). Keep in mind that it is so helpful to allow children the time and space to feel a range of emotions about upcoming transitions.  If your first instinct is to focus on the positive, remember that part of healthy coping is developing the capacity to tolerate and work through difficult emotions. By acknowledging your child’s distress, you are showing empathy as well as supporting the fact that their feelings match the current situation.

 

Once you have empathized and allowed your child space to share and work through their feelings, you can gently shift the focus to problem solving. Facing life transitions with a problem-solving approach supports feelings of agency and helps children feel proactive. For example:

  •  “It makes sense that you’re sad to leave your friends and I hear that you’re feeling particularly sad about it right now. When you’re ready, let’s brainstorm a list of ways for you to stay in touch with people after we’ve moved.”

  • “Of course you’re nervous about starting a new school. That totally makes sense. I found the link to the list of after-school clubs at your new school. When you’re ready we can look at it together and you can think about which club(s) you might like to join.”

 

If your family is facing upcoming life transitions, keep in mind that this situation provides a great time to talk with children about the experience of having mixed feelings. In my office, when I acknowledge the existence of mixed or ambivalent emotions, children are relieved to talk about how confusing it can be to have mixed feelingsWe talk about how it can be tricky to have different reactions to the same situation.  I normalize this way of feeling and let children know that identifying and coping with ambivalent feelings is an important part of building self-awareness.

 

A simple way to acknowledge a child’s ambivalent emotions is to use the phrase, “Two things are true…”  Here are some additional sample scripts to support conversations about holding two (or more) feelings in mind at the same time:

  • “I see you jumping around, and I hear you talking fast and asking so many questions.  Looks like you feel really excited for the end of school party. I wonder if you’re also worried about it.”

  • “It sounds as though part of you is excited to start 3rd grade and part of you is nervous.  Lots of times kids have mixed feelings about doing new things.”

  • “Sounds like two things are true: you feel ready to be finished with elementary school and you’re also nervous about starting middle school. Both of those reactions make sense.”

  • “So part of you is glad to be finished with sophomore year and part of you is sad that your friends who are seniors will be leaving. Did I get that right?”

 

Coping with transitions and understanding the complexity of mixed emotions is something that many adults are working on in one way or another throughout much of their lives.  Starting this conversation now will help your children build a foundation for increased self-awareness and emotional literacy.

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