New School Year Brings New Transitions
It’s back to school time with all the anxiety that brings to families… plus a little more thanks to COVID. And specifically thinking about the transition to college, I realize that families have dropped off children at college for years. And adolescents have made the transition from home to school for years. But nobody currently living has made the transition from home to school during a pandemic.
This seems like a perfect opportunity to get beneath the surface and talk about the skills needed to navigate all sorts of transitions with grace.
Leaving for college is just one example of a major life transition. There are plenty of other significant transitions that occur throughout our lifetimes. So it is a worthwhile effort to build skills that support healthy life transitions. Let’s get started by thinking about what makes significant transitions so difficult.
The first thing that comes to my mind is disruption, when the flow of one activity is disrupted by something else – both planned and unplanned. This can be as simple as the disruption that occurs when leaving the quiet of my car as I return from work and walking into the chaos of active family life at dinner time. Or this can be as complex as the disruption to self-understanding, purpose, and family rituals when my child leaves for college.
The Flow of Family Life
To get beneath the surface of managing the disruption transitions bring, it’s helpful to think of family life as a system. On a day-to-day basis there is a flow to our life. This flow has ways of working and ways of navigating hardships. And together we are linked in this flow.
I learned from Dr. Daniel Siegel that a healthy system is integrated. It is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable (FACES). When a system is integrated, it functions in harmony. Think about a river that flows gently, winding its way around obstacles with ease. When a system is not integrated it exhibits chaos and rigidity. Think about a river at flood stage overflowing its banks or a river cutting through rock that refuses to yield its boundaries.
Dr. Siegel further describes integration as the linkage of differentiated parts. When getting beneath the surface to exactly what it is that equips us to navigate transitions with grace, I’d like to start with a focus on integration in our family systems.
Integration as Health in Families
In our families the differentiated parts are the individual family members. The linkage is the relationship shared between each of those members. During times of transition each part is further differentiating – growing, changing, becoming. These changes force the linkage to adapt. In other words, the way we’ve been relating to each other has to change. And change can be scary.
I spent 18 years getting to know my child. We developed rituals of connection in the flow of our day. We were naturally connected through my volunteering at school, driving to activities, and hosting friends. Much of understanding my child came from observation – just being together. And I liked being known as my kid’s “Mom.” It was part of my identity, part of my purpose. Linkage wasn’t a problem.
But then my child leaves for college and isn’t living under my roof anymore. I am left in the space that reminds me of our rituals of connection, but without the ritual – without the familiar connection. The purpose attached to volunteering at school, driving to or attending activities, and hosting friends is painfully absent. It is important to acknowledge I’m changing too. It isn’t just my child.
My child is meeting new friends, becoming independent, making mistakes (and recovering from them)… and probably missing our rituals of connection too. The purpose that came naturally to a senior in high school has to be forged anew in a new environment. It’s a lot. It is important to acknowledge that our son/daughter is growing up, continuing on his/her holy journey, growing in to his/her God-given identity, and beginning to find his/her way in the world.
We are both different – growing, changing, becoming. And the linkage we shared for so many years, and may have taken for granted, has to grow and change and become too.
Skills to Promote Integration During Transition
So exactly what skills are needed to navigate transitions with grace? Continuing with the idea that a healthy relationship is integrated (linkage of differentiated parts), it seems if we
- continue to learn about each other,
- are honest about our needs, and
- authentically strive to connect,
each of us will grow, and change, and become in ways that honor our holy journey together. And our relationship will grow, and change, and become deeper, richer, more meaningful.
Transitioning with grace requires the skill of being present to this moment, even if it’s difficult. It is important to acknowledge I’m grieving the loss of after school conversations and Sunday evening family dinners with everyone around the table. It is also important to acknowledge my child is grieving some losses too and needs to learn how to manage that grief in ways that make sense to him/her.
Transitioning with grace requires the skill of noticing what matters to my child and learning about him/her with curiosity and wonder – to acknowledge and respect our differences.
Transitioning with grace requires the skill of choosing connection in a way that is empathic and compassionate and mutually supportive – and to repair when there is a disruption to this connection.
Transitioning with grace requires the skill of listening – to ourselves and to our child. Listening with the intent to understand has a way of forging connections that are flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable – in other words healthy.
What resources do you need?
If you are experiencing a transition of any kind, how are you respecting differences and choosing connection with empathy, compassion, and mutual support? What resources would you find helpful as you strive to navigate this transition with grace?