May 7, 2015

Helping Kids Through Life Transitions

In our house this year, we walked through a life-altering transition in how we educate our children. Having made the decision last spring after months of prayer, our entire family anticipated and prepared for the change over many months. We talked about it often and answered questions from our children, but we discovered as we walked through it that there was nothing that could have truly prepared us or our kids for the emotions and the experience of transition. We simply had to push through it and help our children respond to the range of emotions that the transition brought.

Summer is historically a time when the reality of a transition sets in for many people due to new jobs, new locations, new schools, different schools, and new or changing friendships. Transitions are never easy and, when we watch how they affect our children, we feel the difficulty for them as well as ourselves. How can we, as mothers, help our kids make transitions? And what can we learn about ourselves in the process? Here’s what I learned in the midst of our transition:

Take the Long View
With change, I know there will be a time of transition, but I often don’t give myself grace when negative or uncertain emotions emerge. I’ve been hyper-aware of this because I so often respond similarly to my children; I expect them to move through a transition like our recent one with a positive attitude and immediate acceptance of all the changes it brings for them. I’ve discovered that I’m uncomfortable with negative emotions during a transition because they feed my fear that we’ve made a bad choice, because I want to protect my children from difficult moments, and because I’m typically dealing with my own uncertainties. I made a conscious effort to think of our transition as a long transition rather than a short one, which was my way of giving grace to myself and to my kids and of being open to the difficult days that came and will surely come again.

Taking the long view of a transition not only helps us give grace, but it helps us teach our kids how to give grace to themselves. I told my children, “In this transition, you’ll have times where you don’t know what to do and when you feel uncertain. That’s OK.” And then I gave them some ways they could respond, whether to themselves, to other kids, or to me.

Help Kids Name Emotions
Every kid is different and their responses will be different to the challenges of transition. One of my sons had more difficulty with our schooling transition than the other two. The way he indicated his nervousness, however, was difficult to recognize as nervousness. Instead of typical nervousness, I saw a bad attitude and disrespectful behavior. A wise mom in our church who I sought for help said, “He is nervous about the change and this is how he’s showing it.” I knew immediately she was right. I had been focusing on his behavior, but he really needed me to help him name and respond to his emotions. He needed a compassionate mom who asked for and listened to his true thoughts and feelings without frustration or fear.

Help Kids Answer Questions About the Transition
Grandparents, family friends, and friends from church will be eager to hear about the transition at a time when kids are experiencing a range of emotions and are not eager to focus on it. Especially if they are reluctant to talk about it, help them think of 2-3 things about the transition they’re enjoying and prepare how they’ll talk about those 2-3 things.

Practice What You Can Practice
Most of our difficulties with transitions come from unknowns; we can’t imagine ourselves in our new house, new city, a new school, or with new friends. The same goes for our children. How will I know how to get to my classes? Where can we play in our new city? What if I don’t have any friends? It is vitally important that we help our children practice and prepare for what we can. Does the new school require uniforms? Practice putting on belts and tucking in shirts. Has a valued friend moved away? Role play asking a new friend to play or to join them for lunch.

Celebrate Victories
With so many challenges and unknowns to overcome in a transition, it’s important to find reasons to celebrate victories, accomplishments, and perseverance with our children. Celebrate a milestone in a new city, a new friend made, a school achievement, or a willingness to try something new with a surprise dessert or pointed words of encouragement. Our family simply celebrated finishing the first week in our new school by having a fun, kid-centric night out and talking through the highlights.

Ease up on Lesser Priorities
A friend who went through a transition with her kids last year gave me this advice: “Don’t push too many activities outside of school and church. Your kids will need mental, physical, and emotional space as they process this change.” I took her advice and found it extremely helpful in maintaining the sanity of our family as we all made the transition. We needed space to rest and process our emotions that activity upon activity would have squeezed out.

Pray for Your Kids In Front of Your Kids
There were times through our transition when I put on a brave face for my kids but was inwardly wrestling with fear and doubt. As I prayed about my own concerns, I recognized that I needed to be more open with my kids about how I was handling the changes. They needed to hear me praying for them and asking God to help us through our transition, primarily because it would encourage them to trust God for help when they are uncertain. I began asking them individually what they were concerned about and praying for them out loud. This not only brought peace to our home but it strengthened my faith as well.

Transitions are difficult; there is just no way around it, and we experienced it as a family this year. However, we've experienced something else. God taught and grew my children through the bittersweet blessing of change. And, without a doubt, He taught and grew me, too.