This time of year is a time of transitions for our children and for ourselves. There are a lot of lasts. Last time at toddler group before pre-school. Last time at pre-school before school. Last time at primary school before secondary school. Last exams, last time at school before leaving home.
I first encountered the grief that parents can feel about these transitions when my youngest child left infant school. During the summer holidays that followed I felt very sad that a stage in both mine and my children’s lives were over.
That child left home for university a couple of years’ ago. I recognised a familiar sadness when I saw other children in their school uniforms but there were different feelings as well. I felt excited about the new lives my children were forging, a sense of satisfaction of a job well done, and calm about my role in life.
How can we navigate the transitions in our children’s lives and make it easier for ourselves?
- Accept That This is Loss
Grief doesn’t have to be just about bereavement, it can also be about endings in life. Many parents feel sad as they watch their children grow and realise that a stage of their child’s life is over.
It helps to acknowledge our feelings rather than to try and bury them. If feelings are ignored they tend to increase. Ignoring feelings can often lead to stress and associated problems with unhealthy choices or physical symptoms.
It’s OK to feel sad. You’ve spent precious time and energy on looking after your child. You may well have mixed feelings even though growing up is normal.
- Find the Positive
In the midst of sadness, you can still be proud of yourself that you have helped your child reach this point. It’s not easy to help them to be ready for a new stage in life. Everything from potty training to helping them to live as independent adults requires skill and courage.
You can be proud of your child too. They have mastered new skills with your help.
You can be excited about their future. It will be full of new experiences and challenges which you’ll be able to hear about and support them in.
- Help Your Children to Prepare
You are not the only one who might be feeling concerned about transition. Try asking your children about their thoughts and feelings, both about what they’ve left behind and what they’re about to start.
In this way you’re not only helping them, you’re also helping yourself. You’re showing yourself that you still have a role to play in your children’s lives. You’re still needed.
The rituals of preparing for the next stage can help you both. Seeing them in the new school uniform, paying for new lunch boxes or pencil cases, helping young adults compile a list of “must have’s” for university, while sad for you, can enable reality to sink in. It is a way of honouring your feelings by making this a special time. It will also help your child to feel prepared.
- Learn to Let Go
This is intimately connected with accepting that life is full of change and that children grow. If a child is growing up and learning to be independent, this is a cause for gratitude. The alternative – of a child too ill to grow up into independence – is something most of us can’t bear to think about.
Letting go means allowing children to take age-appropriate risks. This encourages them that they are trusted and enables them to grow their confidence in themselves. Even mistakes are learning experiences for them.
It also helps parents. They are able to relax knowing that their child is capable of meeting new challenges. They are able to move to a new stage of their relationship with their child – one of mutual respect and celebration of their child’s skills and personality.
- Look After Yourself
This is so important! No matter where your child is in their growth, you have worked so hard to enable them to reach this new stage. You’ve invested so much – time, energy, money, sleep, emotions – in them. It’s important to take care of yourself so that you can continue to be there for them, in whatever way they need you.
You may feel lost and empty when your children move to a new stage of their lives. To an extent you may feel you have lost who you are. You’ve channelled everything into your children. If you’re not the parent of toddler or a pre-schooler, a primary school child, or your children have gone away, you may not know who you are anymore. There can be a loss of identity.
It helps to see this as a chance to forge a new sense of who you are.
The space left by the transition can be filled by something else. Examples might be doing something that gives you pleasure, such as a new hobby or sport or more socialising. Volunteering at your child’s new school is a great way to meet new people and grow in confidence. It might feel like time to do some more training or develop a new line of work.
Children’s growth is inevitable. The passing of time in their lives gives their parents the opportunity to grow and develop as well.