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Stick the Landing

Parenting tips for transitions



There's a good reason getting everyone out the door on-time — with their shoes on — can feel like a major accomplishment for parents. It's more or less the same reason bedtime is the number one topic parents contact me to discuss. Whether it's the transition from the living room to the car seat or bath-time to sleep-time, periods of adjustment from one thing to another are times when even the most on-top-of-it parents can find the situation going sideways.

The same strategies I once used in class to get 20 5 year olds happily seated on the rug and ready to read after playing on the swings can get the job done in your home, too.

Right now, as we round out a full year of uncertainty and limitation, packs of kids are readjusting to in-person class just in time to get ready for one of the biggest annual transitions of all: the end of the school year. As a parent or caregiver, you might be looking for ways to make these, and other ordinary changes more manageable.

The most critical thing to keep in mind when addressing transitions is that you and your kids are on the same side. Even when it seems like your little ones are working against you at every turn, remember your children really aren't making things difficult at you. They're being kids. The minute you lose that perspective you risk slipping into a power struggle, and all power struggles ever achieve is frustration. Understanding that you are on the same side, you can support your children while remaining in charge.

It's helpful to remember transitions can be tough for everyone, not just the preschool set. Any of us who have stayed up past our own grown-up bedtimes to watch one more episode of whatever have felt this. The difficult aspects of transitions are amplified for children because they have necessarily shorter attention spans and are neurologically less equipped to regulate their emotions.

As there is loss inherent in all change, even very positive change, kids are likely to have some hefty feelings in response. This is particularly true for changes that alter the structure of their lives. When you make room for emotional responses, the feelings don't need to derail the program. Making room for emotions means not immediately trying to fix them or making them shameful. If it's acceptable to have and to express feelings, the feelings don't need to become explosive or direct the show.

Transitions go best when adults stick to the plan. Huge, unforeseen catastrophes aside, moving forward with the actions you said you were going to take, when you said you were going to take them, is the real key to smooth progressions from one thing to another. There are psychological reasons why children try to take control of the situation right when you are doing your best to move on to the next thing. It's the job of the caregiver to continually redirect everyone back to the task at hand, regardless of your charges' wily diversion tactics. Don't get distracted — your kids really can be sad and still get in the car. You really can be an invested parent and still tell your child that you're excited to hear about this cool thing they learned after they've packed their backpack and put on their shoes.

Especially when it's a big turning point, there's tremendous value in communicating to children what's going to happen next. Talk with your kids about changes before they occur, multiple times. Let them ask questions and imagine together what it's going to be like. One reason that transitions are so anxiety-provoking is that they generally involve moving into something (at least partially) unknown. If you help your children conceptualize the new conditions, you can remove some of the threat.

Finally, cut everyone — including yourself — some slack. It will help just to recognize that transitions take attention and allow yourself enough time. For large, structural changes, accept that your family might be best served by letting some less-pressing tasks go during the adjustment period. This will afford you more energy, time, and a greater emotional capacity to smooth out the change. It can also be very effective to mark significant transitions with some small special event. Talk it up. Make it meaningful. Balloons at dinnertime, a favorite treat the day before or the weekend after, or watching a movie with sleeping bags in the living room can be just the thing that flips a sad, annoying or scary change into an exciting adventure.

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