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Transition Tension: Ideas for Trauma-Proofing Life Changes for Children

July 16, 2012

TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Cherie L. Spehar, LCSW, CTS, CTC

We are approaching the time of year when there are many natural transitions in a child’s life. New teachers, new classrooms and new schedules can create tension and apprehension. Apart from that, many kids are facing additional transitions that can be particularly difficult. These include things like visitation schedules, moves, peer changes and more. Consistency is important when children are adapting to new schedules. How to say goodbye is often overlooked and should be included in transition planning.

What Makes Transitions Hard?

One of the hardest parts about transitions, even if they are positive, is that with every change, some form of loss occurs. This is true even for what we perceive as positive changes. Something is given up when a change happens, and many children report transitional experiences as the most stressful encounters aside from other traumas. Other factors complicating transitions are those children who are particularly sensitive to routines, children who have already been traumatized, age, emotional development, and the intensity and amount of change to which they are already accustomed. When you consider this combination of factors, it becomes easily apparent that providing preparation and consideration for the “last times” is really a resilience-based option to enter into a new time.

Some Things to Try

Whenever I have a child or family going through a transition – which is often part of the reason they seek out assistance – we want to tap into their natural resilience and address their connection to their former place. With that in mind, one of the first things we go through together is how to say goodbye to an old place, a former routine or a person. Here are some simple but powerful ways to help bring gentle closure to the past so the future can begin with less angst.

  • Farewell Rituals:  Where and when possible, I offer assistance to parents in creating a trauma-informed “Pacing Plan” to ease the experience. Here, we create a list of things, people and places that are important to the child. Next, create a loose timeline for including an experience with each “one last time” before the change happens. For example, go to favorite places one more time, ask them to breathe in the smell and pay attention to what they see, and then say goodbye to the place either in their head or out loud. If moving from a home, school or camp, walk through the current place and say farewell to each room. Help them pick one thing from each room that they will remember. For example, one young boy in my care once recounted that, to feel safe, he would stare at a crack in on his bedroom wall. He liked this crack in the wall because “it never changed.” We made sure that he said goodbye to this one feature that he connected with most.
  • Give Time Markers:  As many parents recognize, even day-to-day transitions from play to dinner, dinner to sleep and so on, go much smoother when kids are prepared. Again, to the extent that you can, provide time markers for a child. Use a calendar to cross off days together, offer verbal reminders at month, week and day markers, or use a gem jar or other creative way to mark the time so it does not come as a surprise.
  • Follow the Feelings:  It will be important, of course, to pay special attention to feelings and to help the child make space for them. Encourage the child to draw, play out scenes with puppets or stuffed animals, or use toys that symbolize movement (trains, cars, boats, skates). Ensure the child understands that they have safe places and people to share their feelings, and acknowledge that sometimes we can hold many feelings at once that seem to cancel each other out.

We all know that change is not always something we can plan for. These techniques are a way to “trauma-proof” difficult changes when we know in advance of their occurrence. When unexpected and swift change happens, a child may benefit from a different level of care. However, I have found that most of these can be adapted post-change to still offer relief, connection and bridge the goodbyes and hellos with less fear and anxiety.

May you find the tools of the heart to bridge the changes in your lives or the lives of those with whom you are walking the “Healing Path.”

Cherie, Smiling Spirit Pathways

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mary Langtrand permalink
    July 17, 2012 8:57 pm

    Wow! So true! Absolutely wonderful!

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