What are transitions?
Transitions are the movement or changes from one position, stage or state to another. These changes can be gradual or sudden and last for differing periods of time. They can be emotional, physical, intellectual or even physiological. There are many different transitions children and young people face in their lives, a number of which are unavoidable – think starting school, moving up year groups, moving from day-care to kindergarten or from secondary school to TAFE or University or even going through puberty. Other types of transitions can include: the arrival of new siblings; that space in time when children are moving from being asleep to being awake (or vice versa); being affected by bereavement; or diagnosed with some sort of medical condition or illness; moving to live in a new town or country; a first sexual experience; or even coming out as lesbian or gay.
For some children, times of transition and change can be particularly difficult and stressful, not least because it is typically a time during which they can be very emotionally vulnerable. Reducing difficulties during change by even a small amount can make a huge difference.
The transitions that children and young people face can be:
Emotional: affected by personal experiences, for example bereavement or the divorce or separation of parents
Physical: moving to a new home, class or school
Intellectual: moving from one type of organisation to another, for example from daycare to school, primary school to secondary school, secondary school to college to university
Physiological: going through puberty or a long-term medical condition
For children of divorce and those in step-families and/or in shared care arrangements, transitions are inevitable and completely unavoidable as they move and live between two homes.
The actual move from one household to another, whether it happens every few days, once or twice a fortnight or just on weekends or during holidays, can be a very hard time for children (even if the changeover happens via school or another third party and the parents never come into contact with one another).
Changeovers and transitioning from one parent to another (and from one household to another) represents a change in your children’s/step-children’s day-to-day reality. They may have to adjust to a different set of rules and expectations. They may go from having their own room to having to share with a sibling. From having no pets to a household of animals. From being the youngest to being the oldest or from a household involving two adults (a parent and stepparent) to a single adult household. On top of all of that, every reunion with one parent is also a separation from the other; each “hello” is also a “goodbye.”
Airports – the happiest and saddest places on earth.
I once had a very articulate (and well travelled) young boy liken his emotional experience of moving between his two homes to simultaneously being at the arrival and departure gates of an international airport.
This young boy’s analogy of transitions as being like an airport is pretty apt, not least because an airport is a place of transit but because it is typically a melting pot of emotion – you get the whole range. And more often than not it is raw. I mean watch people and families reunite at arrival gates and watch them separate before security outside of Departures. Emotions converge on each other; the pain of goodbyes and last moments are mixed with anticipation and excitement of what (or who) is to come. The heyday of an arrival can be tempered by the comforting feeling of relief that someone is finally home again.
All those mixed emotions, people deeply feeling the emotions of the moment, can make airports both the saddest and happiest places on earth. This is what I think this young boy was trying to communicate and explain to me during his counselling session (and through me to his parents). It wasn’t bad experience or a good one. It was what it was, a little bittersweet.
What can stepparents and co-parents do?
Despite the inevitably of transition periods your stepchildren/children experience, there are things that you, as their parents and stepparents, can do to help the children manage and to make transitions a little easier – both when the children are leaving and returning to your home.
You can try the following to help your child adjust:
- Don’t fret. The beginning of your children’s return to your home can be awkward or even rocky. This is OK and perfectly normal. Try also not to get overly concerned with behaviors that seem unusual during the initial period after the change. If it helps, perhaps try thinking of it a little bit like emotional jet lag. Don’t fuss over them as if they are sick or there is something wrong with them. Say hello, greet them warmly and with affection but overall make their arrival home uneventful. If you regularly make their arrival (and for this matter their leaving) a big production – lots of hugs and hellos/goodbyes or asking if they’ve missed you – your children may likely assume it’s a big deal, as opposed to just part in parcel of having two homes.
- Allow the child space. Children often need a little time to adjust to the transition. If they seem to need some space, give it to them and do something else nearby (even when all you want to do is smother them with attention and enjoy their company). In time, things will get back to “normal”.
- Keep things low-key. When children first enter your home, keep it casual and try to have some down time together—read a book or do some other quiet activity to give them the opportunity to regroup and time to regain some emotional balance.
- Establish a special routine or a “transition ritual”. One way you can help kids cope is by creating a consistent environment that helps children shift gears more easily. Play the same game or serve the same special meal each time your child returns. Children thrive on routine —if they know exactly what to expect when they return to you, it can help the transition back in to your household and your routine. For example: Lets say Cooper goes into melt down mode every time Mum drops him off for the weekend with his Dad. One way Dad could help Cooper is by choosing an activity they could do together as soon as Cooper crosses his threshold. Let’s say Cooper loves to kick a soccer ball around. When Cooper arrives he and Dad could spend 15-20 minutes kicking a ball around the back yard together. While doing this, they could chat about Cooper’s week with Mum and what the rest of the weekend with Dad will look like. Cooper has a chance to decompress and Dad has a way to help Cooper transition into their routine.
- Double up. To make packing and unpacking simpler and make kids feel more comfortable when they are at the other parent’s house, have kids keep certain basics—toothbrush, hairbrush, pajamas—at both houses. This means there is less to unpack when they return home and easier to slot back into family life.
- Empathy. Try your best to be understanding of your kids/stepkids missing things from their other home, including the other parent. Whilst you might be OK if you never had to think of your Ex or your partner’s Ex again, all of those things are very real to your child and not having them when they want them can be very frustrating and sad.
As the stepchildren/children prepare to leave your house to go spend time with their other parent, you can try using the following strategies to help make transitions easier:
- Keep calm and carry on. This is similar to “no. 1 – don’t fret” above. Try to stay calm and positive and deliver them on time. Make their leaving as uneventful as possible. Don’t prolong the goodbyes or ask them if they’ll miss you or tell them that you will miss them. Children sense their parents’ and stepparents’ tacit approval and take with them the good wishes of the parent they are leaving. Even though the sudden change can be stressful, knowing that the parent being left supports the departure and will be fine during their absence gives the children the emotional permission to enjoy their time with their other parents and the foundation that they need to cope.
- Help children anticipate change. Gently remind the kids they’ll be leaving for the other parent’s house a day or two before the visit e.g., when planning for the week ahead on Sunday night you might casually add into the conversation, “remember on Wednesday your Mum’s picking you up from school so I’ll make sure that your football uniform is clean and ready to be packed”. Children tend to function best when they know what to expect. The more unstructured, strange or unexpected the changeover is, the more disorientated and unable to cope children are likely to feel (after all they are only human!).
- Help them pack. Depending on their age, help children pack their bags well before they leave so that they don’t forget anything they’ll miss. Encourage packing familiar reminders like a special stuffed toy, blanket or photograph. If they are school-age, make sure that their homework is included. Often having a younger child choose their own traveling bag can help. Their input into this symbol of their transition can help give a child a feeling of involvement and control.
- Be cautious about over-interpreting a child’s reluctance at transition time.Before becoming distressed at your child’s/stepchild’s seeming reluctance to transition to the other parent, take a step back and note as to whether the reluctance is because they are seeking to avoid being with the other parent, or perhaps wanting to have some control, demonstrating loyalty to you, or, as may often be the case, is the child having a fun time and just isn’t ready to stop doing what they’re doing and go.
- Teach them to problem-solve. Let’s say your child/stepchild wants to go to their other home, but they’re nervous about being away from you. Don’t give them an out and allow them not to go. Instead, normalize their nervousness, and help them figure out how to navigate being “homesick”. In this scenario you might ask your child/stepchild how they can practice getting used to being away from you/home. If your stepchild is worried about getting their assignment finished at their other parent’s home, brainstorm strategies with them, including who they could ask for help from and how they might manage their time and schedule in order to get their project finished. In other words, engage your child/stepchild in figuring out how they can handle the challenges. Give them the opportunity, over and over, to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
What have you found helps your stepchildren/children manage transitions?