Transitions Can Be Hard

A child’s life is full of transitions. Most of these are small and occur daily, such as shifts from home to school or from play to responsibilities. Around the winter holidays children typically face a series of much bigger transitions including from school to home, routine to down time, and back again over the course of just a few weeks! This annual period of upheaval in routine is further complicated this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Children typically only have to transition in and out of school around the holidays; this year many children have been shifting between in-person, remote, and hybrid learning almost all  year. These changes can be taxing to many children and may make them more vulnerable to struggle with the upcoming holiday transitions. Luckily, there are several simple steps that parents can take to help their child prepare for and skillfully adapt to the many transitions of the season.

Talk About It

Well intended parents often do not mention upcoming transitions to children with the noble intention of sparing them potential stress. However, kids typically do best when their world is predictable, and they know what to expect. Discuss the upcoming transition with your child during a calm moment. Review what will be different and check in on how they are feeling. For example, a parent might say “In two days your winter break will start! That means you will not go to school. You will be home with grandma at first and then with me. It will feel pretty different than a normal school day. How are you feeling about that?”. If your child shares worry or uncertainty, validate their feelings. Additionally, allow time for them to ask questions about the changes. When you answer the questions, express confidence in their ability to handle the transition well.

Create Routines

Transitions often feel stressful to children because of their inherent unpredictability compared to normal life. Even when the new activity is something fun like making cookies or going sledding, day after day of unpredictability can wear on children. Whether going back to school after a holiday break or from to remote learning from in-person, look for opportunities to make the days as predictable as possible for your child.

Talk with your child about how they want to spend their time. Though holiday break days can and should have more flexibility than normal school days, try to stick with a relatively consistent schedule that includes similar sleep, meal, and movement times each day. It’s also important to build time for relaxation and soothing activities like a “mindful minute” during each day. Try to help your child find a balance between being over- and under-scheduled.

As you and your child collaboratively make their schedule, get specific about what they will do independently during the day and what they need your help with. Breaks can be a great opportunity for kids to practice taking on new self-care tasks with more independence. This will make your life easier when they return to their normal schedule!

Make the days of the schedule full of visual prompts. Depending on your child’s age, they can independently create or decorate a chart that lists the activities they will accomplish. Hang the chart in a central location in your home and encourage your child to check their schedule throughout the day to make sure they are on track with the goals they set. By keeping a routine and consistency over the break, your child will be better prepared to transition back to the structure of the school day. Kids also typically feel accomplished if they achieve goals that they set for themselves.

Setting Up for a Successful Return

In the day or two leading up to the return to school, have a conversation about this next transition. As before, check in on your child’s feelings and leave room for questions. Walk through the daily schedule and consider creating a new chart if your child did well with the schedule chart over the break. It can also be helpful to create a checklist of what they need to go to school or set up for remote learning that your child can reference as they get ready.

Coping with Change

Even the best planned transitions can go awry. Children can get tired and overstimulated and have trouble coping. Teach your child a few basic coping skills ahead of time so that they know how to calm their body and brain when feelings get big. Slow, deep belly breaths are a simple, easy way of calming one’s body down. To teach this skill, lay down on the floor with your child during a calm moment. Put stuffed animals on your bellies and practice breathing in a way that makes the stuffed animal rise and fall. Ask your child how the breathing makes their body feel. Get curious together about if they think it could be helpful when they are sad or mad. Other helpful skills include activities to soothe one’s sense and focus on the present moment (i.e., mindfulness). It is important to teach any new coping skill during a calm moment so that your child is familiar with it and knows what to do when emotions get big.

Transitions are a part of life, now more than ever with the many societal changes stemming from COVID-19. Helping your child learn how to skillfully and flexibly navigate transitions large and small is an important life skill that they will always need. For more resources on this important topic, check out some Magination Press books below that can help with navigating transitions, anxiety, and mindfulness.

Check out our lists of books about mindfulness and fears and anxieties.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

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