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The 6 Strategies Parents Need to Help Children Navigate Tricky Transitions

Back-To-School Transitions Guide (1)

As parents, we learn pretty quickly that transitions are tough for kids - from getting them to turn off the iPad (when you've asked 4 times) to leaving a play date when “counting to 3” doesn’t work anymore. One of the most tricky transitions is, of course, going back to school. Even we can remember our stomachs rumbling with nerves walking into a new classroom.

So why are transitions like this so challenging? Children can struggle with the change in routine and may not have the emotional vocabulary to explain what they're feeling. Parents can feel overwhelmed by the energy required to shift family patterns to the "new normal." Children sometimes need extra emotional support and guidance from parents to manage all the ups and downs that come with these transitions. We've all been there! Thankfully, there are a few evidence-based techniques that are proven to help parents guide their kids through transitions:

Create (and stick to) a schedule

Although children often express frustration at sticking to a schedule, most parents recognize that their kids generally do better with some structure. Children can struggle with the unexpected - unknowns can transform into frustrations and fears - and having simple processes that they can predict in their day can create anchor points that support self-regulation. The part of children's brains that can help with making a plan and figuring out what to do next takes a lot of time and practice to mature. In the meantime, they need our help to provide the "training wheels" while they're figuring out "how to ride." For example, if your child is struggling to get dressed in the morning, it may be helpful to write or draw out a schedule in 15-minute periods, clearly showing them what they should be doing to prepare for the day during that time.

Figure out if it's "won't" or "can't"

Here’s a common scene in many houses during the morning rush to get out the door: your kid won’t get their backpack ready no matter how many times you ask. If children regularly struggle with a task like this, consider if it's more of a "can't" than a "won't." A "won't" means that they know how to do a task and can do it regularly, but are not for a particular reason. A "can't" means that there is something about the task that makes it difficult for a child to consistently complete. If it's a "won't," you can consider using basic reward or disciplinary strategies to address the behavior. But if it's a "can't," you may need to consider what else your child needs to understand or what help they may need to complete the task. Think about their age and development: If you're not sure what your child can or should be able to do at this age, check in with their teacher, other parents with similar aged children, or your pediatrician. Your child may need step-by-step support to get their backpack ready or tidy their room, checking in with you between each step until they’ve mastered the whole process. 

Find the “right” reward

When you’re navigating a transition like back-to-school, it’s key to learn what rewards motivate your children and what consequences matter to them. Rewards can range from simple to complex. For many children in the early school years, parental attention is enough of a reward, and we as parents need to use that judiciously. Use your attention to reward specific behaviors you want to see more of. If your child is doing well getting prepared for the school day, instead of moving on to your next "to do" or even saying "Great job!", try, "I really like how you got your backpack ready before playing with your brother." And remember, negative attention will do if positive attention isn't available! Sometimes, we really have to actively ignore the "small things" to strategically reward specific positive behaviors you want to see more of.

Open the lines of communication

So far, we've been talking about different actions we can take as a family to make transitions easier. We can also practice healthy communication strategies that help us navigate the day. If you've got a child who tends to worry a bit or lose focus throughout the day, invest some time to talk about what's to come. That could be discussing changes to the family routine or simply going through the schedule or sequence for the day. We want to do this in language that makes sense to your child and to check for understanding along the way. For example, you might write or draw out a typical schedule for the day, post it up on wall or refrigerator, and ask your child to come and check to see what’s next on their schedule with you throughout the day until they’ve got it down. If they ask questions about what a process or word means, teach them what you mean or modify it so it makes sense to them.

Validate their anxious feelings

If you find your child struggling emotionally in anticipation of changes to come, help them find ways to express themselves. Resist the "righting reflex" to fix the problem for them, and instead help them to explore what they're feeling. Share about times that you've felt apprehensive. Normalize that it's all right to have anxious thoughts and feelings, and that it's important to recognize and express those feelings to themselves and to you.

At the same time, we want to be careful about avoidance, often the "twin" of anxiety. We tend to avoid the things that we are fearful of or unfamiliar with. Sometimes this can be entirely appropriate—a child wanting to avoid talking to a new adult they've just met. But at other times, our children can become avoidant of things they don't need to be fearful of i.e., going to school, spending time with a friend, or talking with a known loved one. We want to teach them that it's okay to have anxious thoughts and feelings, but that we don't want those anxieties to be the only guides to our actions. We want them to learn that they can "borrow" strength and wisdom from trusted sources, and that they can withstand anxieties from most sources with a little practice and support.

Cut yourself some slack

It's okay to feel the weight of the emotional work of parenting. It's important to find ways to unplug and recharge, especially when you're feeling overwhelmed. We all can find ourselves losing our cool as parents from time to time, especially during stressful times like back to school. Sometimes this is stepping away from the situation to take a few deep breaths, connecting with a supportive loved one, or regrouping your thoughts and planning for the situation.

It can also be important to regularly engage in recharging activities. Generally, any physical activity is helpful. Taking even a brief walk a few times a week to clear your mind can bring more clarity and calm to parenting your child through life changes. There also needs to be a space for joy in life. When you're finding yourself drained, actively engage in something that brings some joy in your life. We tend to think that we cannot possibly make time for these types of activities ("There's so much to do!"). And yet, parenting "on empty" can be challenging and further draining. Taking a little time to find a little joy for yourself can help you reconnect with some of the joy of parenting.


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