“Mindful parenting is a continual process of deepening and refining our awareness and our ability to be present and act wisely. It is not an attempt to attain a fixed goal or outcome, however worthy. An important part of this process is seeing ourselves with some degree of kindness and compassion. This includes seeing and accepting our limitations, our blindnesses, our humanness and fallibility, and working with them mindfully as best we can.” Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting
There is no time in life when our ability to be mindful and present in the moment is more challenged than during times of transitions. The process of getting from one place to another is full of stress and strife. And not just big transitions. I’m talking about everyday, moving-from-one-thing-to-the-next transitions. Sometimes, getting the kids in the car can feel like the accomplishment of a lifetime. Parents often hear themselves reminding, nagging, begging, yelling, threatening, “Come ON! Let’s GO!”
The other day a parent said to me, “Why is it that as soon as it is time to go somewhere, no one in my house can do anything without me doing it for them? Suddenly no one can put on shoes or pick up toys. Suddenly everyone needs to eat or drink or poop. Suddenly everyone feels sad or mad or crazy. Suddenly the world is chaos and it stays that way until we are all in our respective seats in the car and then everything is fine.” I smiled, because I could relate. Completely.
I have always believed it was my kids who had trouble with transitions. But then my son taught me something about myself that made me rethink the whole transition trouble. My older son has recently taken it upon himself to teach my younger son everything there is to know about the world and that is exactly what he did on this occasion. It was time to go. I was focused on the fact that we were going to be late and I said (for maybe the tenth time), “Come on, boys, we have to get in the car now.” I moved from room to room, getting my things in order. My younger son started to put on his shoes, when my older, wiser son said, “No, we still have time. She isn’t really ready yet. We still have time to play. She just gets like this when we have to go somewhere.”
My impulse was to snap back. We don’t have time. Get your shoes on. We need to leave now! But, instead, I looked around. It was true. I was still getting my bag packed. My shoes were not on. I was running from room to room. He was right. I wouldn’t actually be ready for a few more minutes.
My body was here, getting ready. My thoughts were there, focused on the future. Getting to our next destination. There was a disconnect between the two. And the result? A feeling of rushed, anxious chaos. I clearly was not present in the moment and I realized that it felt pretty uncomfortable. My children, who are always in the moment, were reacting to me. The interaction was becoming clear to me.
1) Transition is imminent.
2) I get anxious about making that transition happen and my thoughts become future-focused.
3) I try (unsuccessfully) to get my children to focus on the future rather than in the moment.
4) I feel more stressed.
5) The children, in this moment, react to my stress.
6) They escalate their behaviors to get their needs met: “Mama, be here with me!”
7) I feel more stressed.
8) They feel more stressed.
9) We somehow force our way through the transition and relax only once we have made it.
10) My belief that transitions are hard is reaffirmed (so, next time, I may feel even more stressed from the beginning).
As this realization came to fruition, I began to ponder the meaning of transition more deeply. What is it really and why do we have such difficulty with it?
Getting out the door in the morning. Moving from bath time to bedtime. School drop-offs and pick-ups. These types of transitions happen on a daily basis. But are they really any different from bigger life transitions? Developmental milestones; changes in family dynamics; a new baby, divorce, or marriage. The death of a pet, the death of a loved one. Starting a new school. Starting a new job.
At the heart of each of these challenges is the same theme: change. Whether we are big or small, transitions seem to throw us for a loop. We are engaging with our world in one specific way and then, due to some circumstance (because it is just that time of day or we hit a developmental milestone or something happens that propels us forward against our will), we need to move to the next stage of life. And this process, this transition of moving from here to there, seems to be a source of pain and angst. There is even a formal diagnosis for it: Adjustment Disorder, which essentially means that one is having trouble transitioning to the next step.
Getting from here to there means we have to let go of what we think we know and embrace something unknown. It means we have to utilize many different complex and higher-level brain functions (or executive functions). Whether we are getting out of the house in the morning or changing our career path, we use skills such as planning, focus, self-control, goal-setting, perspective-taking, and delay of gratification. We have to integrate emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety (over the loss of this moment, activity, or way of life) and embrace the excitement, fear, hope, and anxiety (over the possibility that lies in front of us: a new moment, activity, or way of life).
In reality, there is a ton going on in the space between what was and what will be. We were at Point A, going to Point C. But what gets lost is B. This moment. What I was missing, what so many of us miss, is that THIS moment, the moment of transition, is a moment in and of itself. We lose this moment, because either we cling too tightly to the past or we allow our mind’s focus on the future to get ahead of our body. This moment, the B moment, gets lost.
So when we yell at our children to “Come on, already!” we need to understand what we are asking. We are asking them to leave this moment and implement a tremendous number of executive functions. We are asking them to make cognitive and emotional shifts towards a future state of being. And if you are anything like me, you are asking them to do it while being unavailable in the present moment.
So what can we do?
Take some time to consider how you handle transitions in your own life. Big ones and little ones. Do you avoid them until the last minute? Do you deny that they are happening at all? Do you stay stuck when you should move forward? Do you emotionally and mentally move into a future-focus way ahead of time? Do you get anxious? Angry? Looking at how we handle big changes can give us insight into how these same patterns may be present (although much more subtly) in times of smaller change.
Remember that young kids need us to help them negotiate transitions. In order to do that, we need to actually be present. Taking time to get yourself ready BEFORE you start to prepare your kids for the transition will allow you to be ready and available to them. Pack your bag, get your own shoes on, load up the car first. Then allow yourself to be fully present in the moment of transition.
Remember that the transition is a moment. It exists. Something is happening, someone is feeling something. This moment is life, it just happens to be a transition. Putting on shoes is the moment. Cleaning up toys is the moment. Being between jobs is the moment. Be in this moment with your kids.
Remember your audience. If you have preschoolers, it is not reasonable to say, “We are going to go to the zoo. We need to get in the car, so pick up your toys, go to the bathroom, get on your shoes and get your hat.” You lost them. Before you speak, ask yourself: What do they need to know and do in this moment? You might say instead, “We are going to the zoo. I am going to get our stuff ready, you can keep playing.” Then, as the time gets closer, help them move through the process one step at a time. “We are getting ready for the zoo. The first step is picking up the toys.” This moment is picking up the toys. This moment is not the next five things they will also need to do to reach the ultimate goal. As kids get older, it becomes more reasonable to expect them to demonstrate increasingly complex abilities to negotiate the transitions. Telling a 15-year-old, “We will be leaving in 30 minutes, see you in the car,” is realistic, especially if we have helped them develop the skills they need to move through transitions peacefully along the way.
We may discover that finding a way to be fully present with our children during transitions takes less time in the end than when we struggle through transitions the old way, with our mind in the future, our body still in the past, and the feelings of disconnect growing. There really is no better time to practice mindfulness than when we are in transitions, big or small. After all, when you stop to think about it, life is simply one transition after another. Learning how to embrace a transition as a moment in and of itself may just be the key to peaceful living.