Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco California

Everything’s changing …

1 December 2023

The theme of the last month in my play therapy work has very much been around helping children of all ages prepare for and negotiate change. It is a feature of year endings that there are shifts and changes of different kinds. Moving to a new town, new school, new province or even a new country – it all seems to be happening!

Personally, this is an emotional week…our son leaves Primary school and starts High School next year. It has been a couple of weeks of “lasts”. His last cricket match for the 1st team which he has loved being a part of. His last set of Primary school exams. He is currently experiencing “leavers week”, planned activities geared towards good endings, some life skills, some thinking of others, and lots of fun. I love the concept of a leavers week for these young people, it’s a real landmark in their year that helps them get ready to say goodbye.

When the landscape is changing, identify some landmarks on the way

So, here’s my first offer of advice or something to think about if you’re negotiating change. Ensure you allow for a landmark or two. Get your children involved in contributing to what your landmark goodbye visits or events could be. Visit favourite places that have happy memories. Throw a farewell party with friends and family. Make sure you take photos so that you have a collection of memories you can look back on and remember together. Be intentional to think through what is realistic and possible with the time and energy you have available.

Change is exhausting, give yourself a break

Because let’s face it, change is exhausting even when it’s good change. There are many decisions to be made, there may be many unknowns. There may be twinges of guilt, regret, and self-doubt “Are we really doing the right thing here? Is this change worth it?” If you can see these feelings as part of the change process, you’ll be able to roll with it much better. It’s normal to be on a bit of a roller coaster. Things might be going well, or they might not. And in the middle of it all you have your children and their emotions to deal with. And unless I’m much mistaken, this is where our guilty feelings and self-doubt about our decisions can come in the most!

Lisa Dion, founder of Synergetic Play Therapy Institute, describes the unknown as a threat to the brain. She says that the unknown itself is not necessarily the scary part, but the perceptions we have about the unknown because we project past experiences onto the future. And usually, we project negative experiences. Ironically, this is the brains way of trying to keep us safe, sending out warnings: “Don’t go there, it’s not safe! Remember what happened before? It’s going to happen again!”

It’s important to remember that what happened before might not have been a trauma or anything terribly dramatic, but it may have involved change with a sense of isolation and loneliness for a while. Or strong feelings of sadness and even regret. When you move to a new place where you don’t know anyone, feeling lonely and isolated are part of the process of the change. This is not a threat, it simply doesn’t feel nice.

We unconsciously project a lot of assumptions onto the unknown. Lisa Dion’s advice is that we make the unknown known.

Spend as much time as you can unpacking what the “new” will look like with your child. Walk around their new school, try to meet their new teacher, drive by the new home you’ve bought. If you’re emigrating, Google Earth is a great tool for being able to have a bird’s eye view of your new town or house. Read up and watch videos about the place you’re going to, find out about the local wildlife or tourist spots, look for activities that match your child’s interests and talk to them about the possibilities.

Bridges of change

Bridges are transition spaces. A bridge takes you from one side to another, it could be really short or really long. The longer it is, the more likely the new reality on the other side will be very different. In a recent session I drew a bridge of change and talked through it with a child. The left side of the bridge was the present and the right side was what is to come in 2024. We marked on the bridge some of the landmarks that were planned or had happened; farewell party, class party and other fun goodbyes. Moving into 2024, we noted landmarks such as starting at the new school and moving into the new house. Underneath the bridge were a collection of the child’s felt experiences, feelings and hopes. We talked about how big changes give us lots of different feelings and even uncomfortable sensations in our bodies – such as a sore tummy. This child’s beautifully expressed hope in all the confusion and hardship was “Not walking the bridge alone. I’m with my family.”

Name of school edited out to protect confidentiality

You are your child’s anchor in times of change

Keep on caring for yourself and preparing yourself for the change so that you can help walk across this bridge of change with your child.


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