Transition plans are identified strategies for parents to use to help maintain consistency, predictability and stability in the life of a child, when change in their environment and relationship is about to occur. These changes in placement can happen through divorce, death of a caregiver, or in foster or adoptive care. Plans are also helpful in cases when there is a change such as a move, change in school or caregiver. Where court proceedings have been a part of the placement plan, many times parties become conflict-ridden and opposed. Transition plans are an effort to bridge these critical junctures by bringing the parties together to serve the best interests of the child or children involved.
The main goal of a transition plan is to ease the inevitable change a child will experience. Helpful strategies include building in comfort and security around already existing routines as well as developing rituals that alleviate anxiety and stress. It is important to understand how any given child responds to both separation and comfort, so the plan will be personalized to fit the unique characteristics of each child. If the new environment can copy features that already serve as a source of security to the child, these will ease some of the stress that is a part of any change. Objects of comfort, which can be taken along, also serve to provide the child with a feeling of safety in an uncertain situation.
In order to honor a child’s current emotion and development, the best transition plans allow for identifying the child’s cues, indicating their current level of security or stress. Adult stressors also have to be taken into account, as the child will take many cues from both what they see and hear from the people in charge of the transition. In addition to what is being said, facial expression (such as fearful expressions versus a confident, warm and smiling expression), voice modulation (such as rapid speech versus an even tone) and body movements (such as speaking at the child’s level versus standing over) all communicate an adult’s feelings about the situation. Support for the adults who are also experiencing loss and conflicted feelings will be needed. It is important that emotion-laden feelings be expressed away from the child, as children have no means of controlling this situation, and will mirror the distress being presented.
Most change is naturally stressful for individuals, both young and old, who must adapt to a change in daily routine that has become expected. Allowing a child to utilize their personal strengths to dictate the pace and manner in which they move through the change is again, the best way to honor an individual child’s needs. Patience is key in allowing all parties to feel their way through a new process. Allowing a child to slowly revisit the environment or people they are about to lose, with continued contact as can be arranged and emotionally managed, will help a child realize that out of sight doesn’t have to be out of mind. Pictures, recordings of significant people reading favorite stories, letters to read, and other reminders that will serve as touch points for the significant relationships the child has experienced can be helpful. Rituals and routines that have been established, in the face of a sometimes-chaotic move, need to be given special attention. Monitoring your child’s ability to maintain regulation, usually in the form of eating, sleeping and elimination, along with behavior and emotional management, needs to be closely watched. Developmental regression (the child’s functioning at an earlier stage of development-such as wetting the bed once potty trained, or wanting to sleep with you once being able to sleep alone) is to be expected during this period and should be allowed until the child can regroup and move forward. Increased comfort, including smiles, holding, rocking and other sensory comforts, such as blankets, teddy bears, etc., should be an integral part of the plan. Frequently, heightened fear, anxiety and confusion are all part of the move for the child. A child many times will not act out, but withdraw internally to deal with the outside uncertainty.
Be aware of the child’s developmental stage and acquaint yourself with social, emotional and periods of neurological development that are age-related. Don’t try to encourage new developmental tasks (potty training, trying new foods, sleeping alone) during this period as this can cause an overload on an already emotionally taxed child. Initially limit the number of people involved with the child to the few family members who will be a part of the daily routine. Additionally, limit the sensory input from television and other sources so the child is able to self-soothe and regulate with the primary caregivers. The child needs to develop security in the new environment to develop a feel for both their surrounding as well as new people that will allow for the building of a secure sense of the new space as well as the new relationships.
Prepare the child verbally by discussing what is to happen in manageable chunks of time-morning, after lunch and evening. I find it helpful to wake the child slowly, with gentle sensory stimulation such as rubbing backs, playing with their hair, etc. This followed by an explanation of what is occur that morning allows a child to visualize a predictable routine. Upon a working parent’s re-entry into the home, it is important to take some time to physically regulate to one another, by possibly having lap time, in order that the parent and child can physiologically become in “sync” with one another. When we hold another or are being held, our blood pressure and respiration becomes the same. This allows us to be attuned to our child in a manner that allows us to “be on the same page” and come together after the busyness of each of our days. Reading a book together, discussing day and evening expectations can ease uncertainty. Utilizing fun distractions such as piggyback rides or other games/fun interactions can also help parents to facilitate switching or transitioning within the daily routine, such as preparation for bath, or bedtime. Give information in age-appropriate doses and language, such that the child can start to develop a concrete awareness of what to expect.
Transitions need to occur given a child’s cues of emotional and behavioral signals, but should not be prolonged to the point that additional anxiety is created. The help of a professional who is experienced with these practices can create confidence for the parent in making uncertain decisions. The parents can also be assisted in managing the myriad of emotions that accompany feelings of uncertainty, grief and loss. The risk of abrupt change can bring long-lasting detrimental effects on a child, particularly if the child has made a series of moves. These sudden and unforeseen changes can create an internal process whereby the child begins to over-control emotion and behavior, as a self-protective measure. This affects the ability to form secure attachments, because the child’s intuitive inner voice and heart begin to distrust the adults’ ability to effectively provide care or comfort. These breaks in attachment can hamper to severely affect further developmental progress, as the child is preoccupied with efforts to self-protect, and bolster their heart from being hurt.
Attachment is the driver of all areas of development, so a transition plan with adults with whom the child is living, along with the adults to whose care the child is preparing to go, is essential when a child is about to experience life-altering change. Providing the best situation for a child dictates that anytime a change is to occur, in environment and relationship, attention is paid to how the child and involved adults move through this process. It is indeed a process, which should not be fast-forwarded or ignored. Change will occur, and we are all better served when accompanied on that journey through planning, empathy and respect.
CATHY CHALMERS, MA, LPC, LMFT
Child, Adolescent & Family Therapies