Transitions are often hard for families because just when we think we’ve figured out a system that works, the schedule changes and we must start over! Then there’s the fact that children often react strongly to change which can further complicate matters. While this is expected and normal, it can make it challenging for us as parents. I’ve come up with a few tried and true tips to help make summer less stressful.
Keep it Simple
We live in a completely overscheduled world. It’s becoming clear that in our efforts to account for everything, we’re losing the ability to slow down and focus on quality of life. This seems to be contributing to unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety in our children. In short, we’re all maxed out and it’s showing. It’s important to adjust our expectations to ensure that our children have a chance to be nourished, especially after an incredibly stressful school year. One way to check ourselves is to ask, “Is this helpful or adding more to my child’s plate?”. The goal is to avoid overstimulating events while prioritizing connection with close friends and family.
If you’re worried about your child falling behind, there are ways to help them without scheduling more. Cultivating resilience and strength is about helping our children find their way through difficulties, not exposing them to more stress or “fixing it” for them. Over parenting can lead to under functioning. There are plenty of big emotions and difficulties in everyday life that can be used as an opportunity to build their skills. Our main job is to help them become comfortable with the uncomfortable aspects of life.
Lastly, if your child is the one pushing for more, it may be helpful to learn how to set compassionate boundaries. Here’s one simple formula for boundary setting: narrate, validate, and then set limits. Narrating is all about attuning to our child’s experience. This can sound like, “Oh wow, I see how excited you are about this”. Validation is acknowledging that their experience makes sense. Let them know that you can see why they are pushing for this activity. From there, let them know that unfortunately, it can’t happen, and you know that stinks! Allow them to be upset and say how you wish it could be different.
Give as Much Choice as Possible
One of the best ways to ease the difficulty of transitions is to involve our children in the decision-making process. Providing children with choices builds security, confidence, and interdependence. It helps them develop decision making skills and fosters a strong sense of self. Children also tend to have higher follow through with schedules they’ve helped create. It can be hard to know exactly what our children need or want but when they’re the one making the choices, you’ll quickly learn what’s most important to them. This will help you bond and have a better idea of how to meet their needs. As they get accustomed to having choices, they will also see the relationship as generally supportive and trustworthy, making teamwork a whole lot easier.
Listen to the Feedback
Families are an ecosystem of relationships. We are constantly getting signals about the stability of the system. These signals come in the form of direct communication and nonverbal signals like behavior. Reactivity (conflict, resistance) can be a sign that your family system needs to shift the way it is functioning. This isn’t bad; it is an essential part of how a family works. Distress signals are meant to call our attention to something that isn’t working. It’s like getting an error message on the computer and needing a reboot. Rather than double down on what we’re doing, we may need to take a step back and shift our approach.
Sometimes we can get so focused on where we want to be that we ignore where we are. When demand is greater than capacity, things go sideways. As parents, we may have to let ourselves feel the disappointment of changing our expectations before making an adjustment. When we do this, we become models for how to work through struggle. Ask yourself if your plan is having the intended outcome and if not, explore other options. Do what works for your family, not what you think you should be doing or what you see other families doing; each family is a unique ecosystem and needs to be treated as such.
Stay Flexible & Avoid Power Struggles
Flexibility is one of the best signs of a well-functioning family system. If we can avoid rigid patterns of coping with family stress, we will create a solid foundation for the family to rely on. This becomes a valuable resource for any family moving through transitions together. Developing a more flexible approach starts with us; we need to take responsibility for our own emotional reaction to stress. Prioritizing our emotional balance puts us in a better position to respond to challenges.
It’s important to remember that our kids are not responsible for managing our stress or anxiety. When we decided to become parents, we signed an invisible contract that makes us responsible for their wellbeing. If things are too much for us, it may be a sign that we need to attend to our own distress. We know that unprocessed emotion tweaks thoughts and behavior. It’s helpful to start with the story we are telling ourselves about our children. When we’re negatively labeling their behavior, it’s most likely being fueled by raw emotions outside of our awareness. When this is happening take a deep breath, notice the narrative, step away for a minute, or focus on the sensations in your body.
Collaborate to Find Solutions Together
We all get stuck as parents. In our frustration, we can double down on an approach that isn’t working. Typically, this only escalates things further and often damages our relationship with our children. If things are getting tense, offer an alternative to change the dial on the emotional channel. This might sound like, “Hey, it really feels like we’re getting stuck here. I want to work together to find something that works better. Could you help me with that?”. Taking this approach helps identify the interactional pattern as the problem and gives both of you a role to play in the solution. If things start going sideways again, stop and name it by saying, “Hey, I noticed your face changed (or body language, tone, etc), is it possible you’re feeling something strong inside?”. Emotions aren’t the whole story but they’re a big part of a child’s experience. After taking some time to release those stuck emotions, both of you can find new ways to talk about the same topic.
– Jonathan Dixon, LMFT
Jonathan Dixon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia who has offered mental health services at Alpha Omega Clinic’s Fairfax office since 2013. He is an active member of the Association of Marriage & Family Therapy. He also seeks to inspire healing and wholeness through reflections on Instagram @deepspeakstodeep.