Children in Transition

Children have many transitions in their lives; from the warmth of home to nursery/ childminder/playgroup; from these early years to more formal school, with longer hours away from home; from junior/lower school to secondary/upper school; from school life to leaving home to travel or study. And probably the biggest transition is from the safety of the womb into the outside world, with the momentous first experience of breathing air into new lungs. Although this first transition is not consciously remembered, the way it is experienced sets the scene in the child’s inner world for how other transitions will be experienced.

Ideally, an infant is helped in his or her first transition from womb to outside world by caring parents, by a safe environment and by gradually experiencing love and security to help him or her to experience the world not as a frightening place but as one where exciting things can happen, and happiness and adventure can be found. At approximately six weeks old, an infant will give his or her first smile, as if suddenly realising that all is well.

It doesn’t always work out as happily as parents might have hoped it would. Births can be traumatic; other events take over; the rest of life goes on with its ups and its downs; mother might experience post-natal depression; other children in the family might and often do protest. I have previously written about Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother.’[1] I’ll remind us of it again. The good-enough parent stands in contrast with the “perfect” parent, who satisfies all the needs of the infant on the spot, and in so doing can actually prevent him or her from developing. So, it is fine if the infant experiences some frustration. The most important thing is that this first transition is helped along, whatever the issues, by parents who can be thoughtful, interested and loving for at least some of the time!

This principle applies to all of a child’s transitions. They all bring their challenges. Leaving home just for the day at age four or five can be as hard as leaving home twenty years later. As we might have done at birth, we feel alone in a big world, we’re unsure who we trust, and in addition we sometimes lose confidence in the abilities we have so far acquired – everything is new and so tiring as we have to try extra hard just to get by each day. Often, it will take a half-term (the proverbial six weeks) or more to settle in and to find friends, to regain our trust and our confidence.

Teenagers going through transition can be especially challenging at home. In my ‘Teenagers’ article I wrote about the struggle they have with knowing that the transition of leaving home is approaching, even though they might be looking forward to it with eagerness. Knowing that they have to leave the parents who have sustained and loved them, been their advocates and their life-lines, teenagers have no choice but to attempt to be the ones who do the pushing away. Talking things through helps, before the transition, during it and after it. Naming feelings for the child or young person can be helpful. For example, you could name the fear of a big, new school or of leaving home if your child or young person has to put on such a brave face that he or she can’t name it. You could refer to your own experiences, how you felt, and how it was when you made your first friend. It can be helpful for you to own some of the more scary feelings, whilst also acknowledging the excitement of transitions.

Life continues beyond childhood to present us with new transitions. It is part of life’s adventure – the loss of what we leave behind, once thought about, gives way for new things ahead.

[1]1951 Winnicott D W, Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenonema

Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists


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