My son starts at a brand-new school today. At 4.5, he’s starting preschool later than a bunch of his peers, but it was the right decision for our family to keep him in his sweet, small daycare for an extra year.
It also means that he’s had three full years at his daycare, which makes the transition to something new feel even more momentous—at least to me. (When I ask him about it, he says something wise like, “It will be a little hard. And also fun to meet new friends!”)
These kinds of transitions are part of parenting for all of us, whether it’s a move to a new school, a new home, or getting a sibling. Here are a few tips for weathering these kinds transitions with respect for your child’s process and your own.
I often talk about getting in the habit of preparing children, because it can be such a powerful tool for showing our respect for our kids and for preempting discipline challenges. It can also be hugely helpful with big transitions.
Some kids take to new experiences like ducks to water. If your child seems to go with the flow during transitions, it can be hard to remember that it’s still a big deal for kids to get used to something entirely new. Those of you with kids who are more sensitive to changes don’t have any trouble remembering this—for children who deeply feel transitions the whole family usually feels it, too.
Whatever kind of kid you have, it can still be useful to get in the habit of preparing our kids for what is coming—always, but especially for the big changes. Getting the timing right on this can be a bit tricky, and if we prepare our kids too soon we risk causing anxiety.
You know your child best. Pick a time to talk about the change that gives ample warning, time to discuss, time to absorb, and time to feel. Keep it light at first. Remember to bring your own confidence to the discussion so that your child can feel safe and held even as s/he ponders the unknown space ahead.
When a big transition comes down the pike for us, we usually start talking about it a couple of months out. (In this case, because we were looking at preschools, our son knew something was up a while ago.) We mention that it is coming, and we give a broad range of time for when it will happen—“after we get back from our trip,” or “before your birthday,” etc.
And then we always say something along the lines of, “we will let you know when it is coming closer so you don’t have to think or worry about it. Right now we still have a long time to do ______________.”
When the big transition nears, I always recommend making lots of space for the feelings that will come up. And I don’t mean just your child’s feelings.
I have noticed in our preschool transition that I have felt a surprising amount of grief about the change. I find myself reflecting on how our son was just a baby when he arrived at his daycare, and that while he was there he learned to ride a scooter, then ride a bike, master the monkey bars, and—most importantly—speak fluently in English and Spanish. It’s sad to say goodbye to the place and people who were such a big part of him becoming the kid he is today.
My son is taking it differently. He’ll admit to being sad about not seeing his buddies every day, but mainly I notice that his feelings show up in less obvious ways. He’s been adamant about reading “ONE MORE BOOK!!!” at bedtime even though it’s not part of our ritual, or suddenly refusing to eat dinner even after professing to be excited about the meal.
Each time something like this comes up, after I get over the “what the….?” feeling, I remember: a lot is changing right now, and he doesn’t necessarily know how to process it. He’s getting a little extra dose of patience from us, more cuddles, and some extra time to process any change, when we can allow it.
And I’m getting myself to bed earlier, doing a little writing, and just making space for my own feelings. It helps.
Did you ever work hard to get a new job, and then, after finally landing it, get sick in your first week? When we finally let down after all the work to get through a transition, all that accumulated stress can do a number on us.
As your transition comes closer, do your best to clear space in your schedule to slow down, be together, or just do nothing. In our family this is the hardest part—usually transitions naturally bring extra work, shopping trips, errands… you name it.
But just as we as adults need time to absorb changes like new jobs, our kids need even more time and space. If ever there was a time to do less, big transition time is it.
Any parent who has worked with me has likely gotten sick of hearing me talk about talking. I think that communicating with our babies and children is the most important thing we can do to build a strong and respectful bond with them from day one.
If you’re already in the habit of talking with your child about what is happening to and with them, this will also come naturally to you during big transitions. But if it feels like a stretch, I encourage you to limber up and give it your all during times of change.
Our kids are intuitive, perceptive, observant little sponges. This is never more the case than when something big is afoot like a major change—especially if the grown-ups seem consumed by it (see Allow above).
If you want to help your child reduce her anxiety about a big transition and weather it smoothly, talk to her. This starts with preparation, but don’t stop once the transition gets underway. You can always keep it light—and I recommend that you do—but keep the door open to hear how it’s going. (Even if it sounds like “waaaaahhhhh!!!)
Let me know if you have other tips for transitions! And I’ll let you know how it goes for us with our new school.
Fingers crossed (sniff)!