My adopted son just completed his second year of preschool. A few weeks ago some coping behavior resurfaced—chewing on his shirt, separation anxiety, etc. Danielle and I struggled to find the cause. Then on the way to his next to last day of school, he asked Danielle, “What if my teacher next year doesn’t love me?”
We then understood that this was most likely the cause of his behavior. I knew most kids ramp up at the end of the school year and wonder what the next year will bring. But this took me a little by surprise.
Honestly, I was frustrated by his regressed behavior especially his separation anxiety. I had to breathe deeply when he clung to my leg instead of going into his classroom or when he didn’t want me to leave the house. Part of the frustration was me not understanding the cause. I really shouldn’t need to always understand the cause. I know sometimes I never will understand. But it helps.
His question revealed his heart to me. Which in turn reminded me he needs patience and gentleness from me. Knowing his fear helps me to at least try to discuss it and help ease it. He and I can talk about it, process it, and deal with it in a constructive way rather than him suffering and coping on his own.
We know now how much chronic trauma affects the wiring of the brain and the result is chronic fear. Any child will struggle with transitions; however, if they feel safe and feel that their environment is predictable, then that child probably will handle transitions better.
The reminder for me is that my son who did have chronic trauma at an early age needs me to help create as safe and predictable an environment as possible to help ensure smooth transitions.
There are three main types of transitions:
- Daily transitions – Moving from one activity to another throughout the day challenge a child who is fear-driven or in survival mode. A daily question, sometimes many times a day, that our son asks is, “what are we doing tomorrow?”. If I don’t plan well for these transitions—provide adequate warning; build in extra time; stay patient—I create a stressful environment for my son which makes it more difficult for him to self-regulate.
- Major life transitions – This is the one that we think has caused his latest behavior—the end of the school year. In my adult brain, it’s not that big of a deal. But to my four-year-old son who has abandonment issues, it’s huge! The last thing I need to do is berate his behavior, tell him to not worry about it, and move on. Instead taking time to process the transition by letting him tell his story, drawing a picture that tells the story, etc. will help his brain reorganize around this bit of information and make sense of the transition.
- Developmental transitions – We all have to learn how to navigate developmental transitions. In my 50s, my brain is reorganizing around the fact my body doesn’t recover as quickly as it did when I was in my 30s. For a young child these transitions come more often as they age. Our son is no longer an infant, but now a preschooler quickly becoming a young child. Children need predictability and some level of control. A child especially from a trauma background benefits from family or daily rituals, such as, getting up at the same time, eating meals around the same time, and having a similar nighttime process.
Even though I have read many books on trauma and how it affects transitions in life, I needed this reminder. I easily slip into a default mode of reacting to the behavior instead of proactively preparing for each type of transition.