Parents Can Help Transitions Go More Smoothly

by Bob DeMarco •

Bob DeMarco

Transitions can be hard. On our best days we handle them well. But on a bad day, or if there is inadequate preparation, hunger, stress, skills, thirst, exhaustion, etc., our ability to cope diminishes quickly.

Often, kids who’ve been through trauma have several obstacles stacked against their ability to cope with transitions. I invite you to spend a few minutes thinking about transitions in your family—what makes them go well, what doesn’t, and what you might do to help everyone handle transitions in the healthiest and most productive way possible.

For the purposes of this article, I’ve divided the topic in two buckets: “painful transitions” and “everyday transitions.”

Painful Transitions

“Painful transitions” are those that are, well, painful for a child to deal with. Examples include transitions:

  • from one home to another,
  • from one school to another,
  • from living with your siblings to living without them;
  • after a visit with your birth mom;
  • to and from out-of-home placements; and
  • to and from a hospitalization.

This is just to name a few.

Not all painful transitions are “bad.” They can include events that are part of life for all of us, like becoming independent, going through puberty, and getting a job. But they do cause pain. These things typically inject some amount of uncertainty, confusion, anger, sadness, and fear into our lives.

As parents, one of our jobs is to help our kids process these feelings and help them to express them in an appropriate way.

But they may also express these feelings in inappropriate ways. When that happens, our best play is to love our kids by giving them a listening ear, a mountain of patience, an ocean of grace, and all the reassurance we can offer. Recognize that difficult behaviors are likely to follow for some time, and remind yourself that these behaviors are not about you, so don’t take them personally.

Our best play is to love our kids by giving them a listening ear, a mountain of patience, an ocean of grace, and all the reassurance we can offer.

We should also remember that we are part of a larger team and that the other team members also have a role to play in helping our kids through difficult times. Teachers, therapists, social workers, resource officers, guidance counselors, Sunday school teachers, mentors, psychiatrists, friends, etc. can all provide support to you and your child, so keep them in the loop as much as you’re comfortable.

Everyday Transitions

“Everyday transitions” are part of regular life in your home. They’re things like getting out of bed in the morning, coming home from school, going to church, coming home from ball practice, going to bed, and coming home from a birthday party. These situations are not so traumatic to the child, but can still be a source of stress. And with transitions, it’s important to be aware that stress can originate from something external, like trouble with a kid at school, or internal, like being hungry, tired, or having too much energy.

As is always the case, parents must be detectives to understand the drivers behind their children’s behaviors. At least some of the time, there are things we can do to help our kids’ everyday transitions go more smoothly.

An Example

In our home we found that the mornings before school are where we historically encounter the less-than-charming side of our kids. So, over a cup of coffee after the kids were in bed one night, we analyzed what we were seeing and discovered a few things. For example, we found that:

  • when there was unstructured time, our kids had trouble;
  • my daughter is a very slow mover in the morning and our son is not, and this can be a source of tension between them;
  • our son had a better morning if he was woken up in a fun way as opposed to just telling him it was time to get up; and
  • there were usually arguments about clothing choices.

Based on these observations, we realized the name of the game was “avoiding.” To avoid the things that set the kids’ short fuses off in the morning we made changes to our routine that we found to be effective.

In general, we find “divide and conquer” is a good strategy, so my wife and I each have a well-choreographed part in the morning routine. We get up and get ourselves sorted first. Then Lisa heads upstairs to wake the kids and I head to the kitchen. While I’m getting the all-important coffee going, dispensing the meds, getting breakfast figured out, and making lunches, Lisa is waking up the kids (our slow mover first) in the way each responds well to.

Let me pause here for a second. We chose my wife to wake the kids specifically because our son really likes some silly stuff in the morning and Lisa has the energy and temperament to deliver that. I do not…and that’s OK. Play to your strengths! This is about finding what works for you and your family.

Un-pause. We’ve found we can avoid wardrobe arguments with our daughter by helping her decide on the outfit the night before. Once they are dressed, all three come downstairs together, so there is always a parent present to head issues off at the pass.

Like most kids, ours have a tendency to get into it with each other—no opportunity is missed to throw the other under the bus or argue over who got more orange juice. To minimize conflict, we literally measure out food portions. This has the added benefit of ensuring our son does not pour (and eat) enough cereal for three grown men! Then it’s time to depart for school, hopefully with good attitudes.

By doing things consistently this way we’ve stacked the deck in our favor. On good days big arguments are avoided, although it certainly doesn’t work every day.

Now, some of you may be thinking we are catering too much to our kids and that they should just learn to operate within the family schedule. I agree! That is something we hope to achieve—in time and through repetition.

While they learn, our kids need scaffolding to keep everything from crumbling while we try to build. The reality is that their emotional age is far less than their chronological age. This leaves us with a choice: build the scaffold, anticipate that our kids will respond to stress as if they are six and seven, and avoid as many landmines as possible, or get used to arguments. In my case, the tone of my day is set in the morning. If it goes well, I’m set up for success. If it doesn’t, then not so much. I choose the scaffolding.

I find that when I’m able to relate a struggle my child has to a struggle I have, I’m better able to be patient with my child as he learns. And when it comes to stress management I can easily relate. A synonym for the word transition is change, and change can be stressful for all of us. Relocating, changing jobs, buying a house, having children, getting a new pet, getting married, losing a loved one—these are all stressful transitions.

Most of us have experienced at least one of these. I’ve experienced all of them, and in some cases several at the same time and I’m sure my wife would agree, my behavior hasn’t always been the best.

During those shaky times, I’ve had people in my life who loved me and helped me find my way to solid ground and hopefully you have, too. Don’t our kids deserve the same from us?

Bob DeMarco is an adoptive parent in North Carolina.