For the most part, I consider myself a pretty smart person. I like to think I have some accomplishments to back that statement up. On the other hand, sometimes I am not always so quick on the uptake. For example: Over the years, as if on schedule, my kids would regularly get into some kind of trouble at these times of year:
- The beginning of the school year
- Winter break
- Spring break
- The end of the school year
After seven? eight? years of them losing outings and other privileges at these times, it finally dawned on me that: a) There’s a pattern here! and b) All these times have something in common: they are all periods of transition.
It took me roughly forever to understand how hard transitions are on my kids. However, once that light bulb finally went off, it wasn’t hard to understand why. I know that most of us don’t do well with transitions. But consider: If your foundational years often consisted of a (not very fun) game of “Now You Live Here, Now You Don’t” (and its spin-off, “Who’s Your Momma/Daddy? Well, Not Me, Anymore”), it makes perfect sense that any shift in context, however slight, would bring up deep wells of anxiety. And, as with most of us, our expressions of anxiety aren’t always the most constructive or useful.
I think the depth of my kids’ anxiety became clear to me when I realized that the “acting up” happened even during a supposedly positive transition. I could understand the boys getting out of hand when school starts—that’s no fun for anyone, guaranteed to bring about low moods and rebellion—but why would you “mess up” the beginning of summer vacation? (Or even, as on their second visit here, why you would act so nuts on New Year’s Eve that you get sent to bed at 8PM and miss the party?)
Lesson learned: Anxiety has no value judgments. It doesn’t discern between “good” situations and “bad” situations. There are only “scary” situations, however benign they might appear on the surface.
So, after those seven? eight? years, I was finally able to start taking a step back when one or (usually) both kids started going to their crazy-acting zone. I was finally able to remember to look at where we were not only in personal circumstances, but also on the calendar. It makes a world of difference to be able to say, “OK, school starts next week and you’re acting like a nut. My guess is that the change is making you anxious, even if you feel like it’s not .* Let’s assume that’s true and see what we can do about it, before you get yourself into any trouble.”
*(Other lesson learned: Kids aren’t always so good at self-evaluating anxiety. Shocking, I know.)
When I remember to take it, this approach has generally proven to keep things much calmer, and allows for a better conversation around limits: “Here’s what will work during this transition period, and here’s what crosses the line.” I know I am really fortunate, but I find my kids respond really well when we lay out the acceptable behavior paths and the consequences for straying from that path. It helps minimize the straying in the first place, and keeps things under control if a consequence needs to be delivered somewhere along the way. It also, I think, helps bring down the anxiety somewhat in the first place.
The beautiful thing about transitions is, they end. What was the “scary new thing” soon becomes “the thing,” and we get into our groove—at least until the next transition presents itself.