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Oregon Family Magazine

Tackling Transitions

01/31/2010 ● By Anonymous
by Shirley Kawa-Jump and Dr. David Johnson, DNS, RN
As the wife of a career Navy man, Jen Galvin of Mountain View, CA, is an old hand at transitions. The Galvins and their three children move every three years or so. She says maintaining communication with the children has helped ease the change from one city to the next. “I talked to them honestly about moving and what good things would happen because of the move,” Galvin says. The recent CA move brought the children closer to their grandparents—a bonus. “We talked about the fact that our family will always stay together and we move together because of Daddy’s job.”

Galvin says she didn’t just put on a happy face and make everything about the move sound great. “We also talked about the things that would be sad about moving so they would be prepared for those feelings as well. We talked about how they would miss their friends and that we could write them and visit, but that it would still be sad. I also told them it was OK to be sad and that I would miss my friends, too.”

Experts say Galvin handled the transition exactly right. Floie J. Stouder, M.A., L.C.S.W., a therapist with Wieland & Assoicates in Fort Wayne, IN, says it’s important to “reassure the child, be sensitive to their fears, concerns and feelings.” Children, like adults, often feel stressed or anxious in coping with change. Helping kids cope with transitions of all sorts is an important skill set for parents.

Shannon Riggs, who is also married to a Navy man, recently moved from Rhode Island to Hawaii in the middle of the school year. “We decided that sticking together as a family was more important than sticking out the rest of the school year,” says Riggs, a mother of two. She opted to homeschool the children during the month-long move across the continent, using space in airports, hotel rooms and automobiles for classroom lessons. This was Riggs’s 11th change-of-station move in 13 years of marriage, and her third-grade daughter’s third elementary school.

However, Riggs says her children handle transition relatively well.

They tend to be close to each other, forming their own internal network and also make friends quickly. Riggs is adaptable to what the children want, too, staying in their new classroom for as long as they want on that difficult first day. “Children are very accepting of newcomers. I’ll never forget how a small crowd of girls encircled my daughter and showed her everything from where to sign in at the class entryway to how far away from the water fountain to stand so that she wouldn’t get her shirt wet. I think some adults could learn a lesson from those wonderful girls!”

Different situations call for different tactics. In the case of a divorce, Stouder says it’s important to reassure children they are loved and aren’t the cause of the divorce. Brette McWhorter Sember, author of The Visitation Handbook: Your Complete Guide to Parenting Apart, says honesty is always the best policy, especially when it comes to visitation appointments. “One of the most important things parents can do to ease transitions is to be honest. Let your child know when he or she will be leaving. Younger children don’t have a good grasp of time, so it can be helpful to offer reminders a few hours before, an hour before and just before the transition time.”

She also advises parents not to use children as go-betweens for messages and information. Don’t utilize the transition time of a visitation to argue or negotiate because it sets a negative climate for the child. Sember offers a few tips for easing visitation issues:

Change the time. For example, if a child comes home from school and then leaves to go to the other parent’s house, try letting the other parent pick up the child earlier from school.

Naptimes. If a transition is scheduled before naptime, change it to after naptime.

Change who is present. For example, say goodbye to your child and let him or her go out to the other parent’s car instead of having the other parent come in the door to do the pickup.

Change where you’re doing it. Drive your child to the other parent’s home yourself.

Transition on neutral territory. Some parents have success with transitions in public places or at relative’s homes.

The third biggest transition children face is death of an immediate family member, says Stouder. In that case, a support group or even church youth group can help give a child an outlet for expressing emotions.

Angele McQuade of Ithaca, NY went through multiple transitions with her four-and-a-half-year-old son. In one month, his baby sister was born, the family moved 1,000 miles to a new state and he started kindergarten. They didn’t have much time to prepare him, but did cuddle a lot, read books about the transitions and work hard to maintain his normal routine. “He was understandably more clingy after his sister was born, and did have some hesitation about starting school so soon after moving to a new state. We talked about his fears and reassured him that even though his life might seem so different, the most important parts hadn’t changed at all. He still had two parents who loved him and would take care of him no matter what.”

Multiple transitions like the McQuades faced can have a bigger impact on a child. For instance, in a divorce, the house is sometimes sold, moving the children into a new community. These transitions impact the whole family system. The parents are often in the middle of the transition themselves and go into “survival” mode, making it difficult to support the children. Unfortunately that is when a kid is most at risk, because they need extra parental support and understanding. If the parent is already on emotional overload, they may have little in reserve to help. Either the children’s needs go unmet, or the children regress, act out, or become anxious/depressed Parents should make sure they have their own support system in place so they can be in a better emotional state to help their children.

Anxiety can be contagious; help children by modeling a calmer, can-do attitude.

Stouder says adjustment can take a year or two, depending on how traumatic the transition event was. She says to look for signs of difficulty coping—extreme withdrawal, bed wetting, nightmares, anger out of proportion to a situation, rebellion, grades dropping, alcohol or drug use—and seek help immediately with a professional therapist.

In the end, the best thing a parent can do is stick with the basics of good parenting: listen, touch, hug, cry, laugh, joke and stay in touch. Don’t assume the child is okay—ask how them how they are doing.

Sharon Wren of East Moline, IL, says the simple transition of her son Logan’s first days at preschool were tough on him. She employed unique method to help him through those early difficult days. “His teacher asked if he had a favorite stuffed animal, which he didn’t.

He did have a mommy and a daddy doll from some play set, so I explained that while the “real” mommy and daddy couldn’t go to school with him, the dolls could. For the first couple of weeks, he’d hold his mommy doll when he was scared or anxious,” she says. In the end, the basic solution worked and Logan eased his way into school.

Sometimes, easing a transition is as easy as adapting to your child’s needs and finding the right mix for what they’re seeking.


1. Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend (Zondervan Publishers, 1992).

2. The Visitation Handbook: Your Complete Guide to Parenting Apart by Brette McWhorter Sember (Sphinx Publishing, 2002).

3. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish & Kimberly Ann Coe (Avon Books, 1999).

4. Totally Uncool by Janice Levy (Carlhoda Picture Books, 2001).