Navigating Tough Transitions by Kim Waldie, Post-Adoption Resource Center Supervisor
Originally published by Post Adoption Resource Center
Autumn 2019 Newsletter for Adoptive Families

When we think about the word transition, many descriptors come to mind:
Rocky transition. Transition time. Transition process.
Even the descriptors sound unpleasant!

In the article, “Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI): A Systemic Approach to Complex Developmental Trauma,” Drs. Karyn Purvis & David Cross talk about three different types of transitions that are especially difficult for children from hard places:

  • Daily transitions. These are the common, daily transitions such as getting a child into bed, putting down the video game, etc.
  • Major life transitions. This would be something like starting in a new school, moving to a new house, etc.
  • Developmental transitions. These are the transitions that come to all kids developmentally: changing from an infant to toddler, a child to a teenager, etc.

What’s the Problem?

For kids, daily transition can mean having to cope with the unexpected. Unexpected interruptions to otherwise enjoyable activities, or even activities that they are simply more comfortable doing. Few of us naturally like changing to things that make us uncomfortable (Martinelli, 2019)! Drs. Purvis & Cross, in their book, “The Connected Child,” speak of the challenge of moving a child from a comfortable, rewarding activity: “Her brain is awash in excitatory neurotransmitters, and she can’t easily put the brakes on.” The unexpected, abrupt start and stop of activity can cause a child to lose their ability to self- regulate, and once they lose it, it can be difficult to regain.

Transitions can also be life transitions, and when you have a history of losing things or people you love, this is where fear creeps in. Bryan Post, in his book “The Great Behavior Breakdown,” writes, “Transition is one of the most difficult areas that children struggle with, and they immediately revert to their fear barrier.” When big transitions happen, children can unconsciously be returned to that place (or just that feeling) from the past. For the parent, it’s imperative to remember perception is reality for our children. Many kids revert to a younger, emotional age during times of transitions.

Developmental transitions are inevitable, so each stage of development means a reprocessing of the past, the present, and the future. It doesn’t mean that our past attempts to help our kids heal were a failure. It just means that this new season requires deeper understanding and new tools to help them.

What Can I Do?

Prepare. This is simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten to do this! Abruptly interrupting them and expecting instant obedience is a recipe for disaster. For the very transition-resistant child, Dr. Ross Greene, in his book “The Explosive Child,” suggests increasing the transitional reminders and the time it takes for transition to happen.

If we forget to give our kids time for their brains to catch up with what we are asking, things can easily fall apart.

Here are some practical ways to do this:

  • Post visual reminders of new schedules, weekly calendars, etc.
  • Make sure you have eye contact and connection before giving instructions (Martinelli, 2019).
  • Charts, timers, or songs can be useful tools to help make the transition less threatening.
  • Make the most of technology to help create colorful lists or schedules (e.g., Visual Schedule Planner—Apple).
  • Practice. I once heard a trainer say, “The brain remembers best what it does.” If a child is going to be successful, it requires that they practice healthy transitions when they are regulated. If we haven’t practiced this skill or invested in trust-building connections, their brains won’t have what they need to push through whenfear sets in. Practice transitions as fun family exercises with as much humor and excitement as possible. Reward their positive transitions during this practice time in creative ways. For kids with sensory processing disorder, consider slowing down the transitions and breaking them down into manageable pieces.
  • Plan. As parents, we have the unique task of coaching our kids in how to regulate their emotions and fears. If a child is going to be successful, they need a workable plan. Talk through with your child what they need to be successful, and when they are struggling, coach them through using those tools to help them deal with their disappointment, fear, or discomfort.
  • Predictable. In the scary face of transition or change, hold on to whatever family routines you can to keep your child feeling safe. With the busy schedule of activities that school brings, it’s easy to overlook the normal family rituals that are important to a child who is already struggling with safety. If the family needs an evening of ice cream together once a week to stay healthy, stock up on lots of ice cream! If your child needs an extra hug each morning before they leave the house, make a point not to miss this opportunity. Create rituals within your transitions.

Whatever you do, ride the wave of transition with the knowledge that this transition time, like everything else, will not last forever.

Green, R. (2014) The Explosive Child. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Martinelli, K. (2019, June) How Can We Help Kids With Transitions? Retrieved from http://childmind.org/article/how-can-we-help-kids-with-trainsitions.
Purvis, K. & Cross, D. (2007) The Connected Child. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Post, B. (2009) The Great Behavior Breakdown. Palmyra, VA: Post Institutes & Associates.