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SEL: The Heart Work and Hard Work of Transitions

Social Emotional Learning Title Card of Barb Flis embracing a happy kid

SEL: The Heart & Hard Work of Transitions

Back to school was always a hard time for me. It catapulted me into the reality of how quickly time passes and forced me to once again face another transition.  I confess, I was never one who moved through transitions very smoothly.  I kicked into control freak mode while presenting an outwardly calm facade.  It never got easy, leaving my screaming three-year-old with the preschool teacher or dropping her off, a very frightened college student, 700 miles away from home. 

An illustration of a mom measuring her childs height with chalk

The dilemma I now realize as a parent of adult children is that there were actually two transitions going on, mine and my child’s transition.  If I had been aware of all the feelings that I cleverly tapped down and controlled, I could have tended to myself in a loving and compassionate way, and been able to bring a more grounded, calm, confident parent forward to support my child in the changes she was experiencing. 


I confess, my social and emotional muscles were weak and, in all truth, I don’t think they were ever fully developed, that is until bigger transitions were at my doorstep.  Transitions whether voluntary or in-voluntary are hard. After all, we are stepping into the unknown which is scary.  No one escapes them.  Our kids move out, go to college, get married, babies are born, there are job changes, relocation, promotions, breakups, divorces, illnesses, second marriages, we lose friends, parents and siblings. It’s frightening to boldly look at all the emotions that come with these changes. They all have endings and beginnings exactly in that order. As much as we may resist, transitions are an opportunity to grow. It takes heaps of courage to let go and allow our children their own journey of growth and even a bolder step to be vulnerable and face down our own. 

An Illustration of a Family Embracing their child

When we know better, we do better.

It’s hard to admit, but underneath that heart-wrenching good bye as my screaming three-year-old clung to my leg begging me not to leave her and then as an 18-year-old saying, “mom, I don’t think I can do this,” were lots of feelings.  The powerlessness of seeing her so scared to take this next step, the second guessing myself on whether this was the right move for her, and where does all this leave me?  As ridiculous as it sounds there was also the thought that perhaps it was easier to have her close so we could both be less scared. Rather than taking a pause and letting those emotions come forward, I skipped right over them, defaulting to my most familiar avoidant strategy, control. The lines of whose feelings were whose were definitely blurred.

In reflecting back, I realize that in all the transitions with my children from birth to being a grandparent (a Barbie), I often stunted my personal growth.  I was so excited to see them experience their first step. I naturally stepped back and cheered them on. The courage it took to get up on two feet, wobbling, then after many failed attempts and lots of perseverance they were off walking. The first step of many. Oh, the dismay in my realizing now that my child’s first step was a metaphor for how to raise my children.  They’re the ones doing the walking, not me.  My job was to step back and let them do the work and do the learning. Allow them to walk through life, don’t carry them.  Stand by, be their best cheerleader.  As painful as their journey is to watch, it was selfish of me to rob them of the opportunity to grow and it was cruel to deny myself personal growth.

Being my own judge and jury, I am guilty as charged.  I carried them more often than I care to admit.  It’s the seemingly innocent stuff like doing the chores they were supposed to do, over involving myself with their homework (okay, I admit I did the entire 4th grade project myself), doing their laundry when they came home from college, or doling out cash in support of their dreams.  If only I had had a huge dose of social and emotional learning.  With that muscle developed, I would have been more aware, made more responsible parenting decisions, sought support from trusted resources, and managed my emotions and relationships much more gracefully.  A constant pattern of placing their dreams ahead of my dreams was a recipe for disaster for me and my children.  My day of reckoning came (better late than never) when we both were struggling to know what we wanted to be when we grow up. That “what’s my purpose” thankfully is the underlying feeling that keeps popping up.

I suspect I am not alone. In fact, I know I’m not.  Every day I coach parents, grandparents and great grandparents who are coming close or have hit that day of reckoning.  The best gift we can give our children is to do the hard work and heart work of our own social and emotional development so we can know what we are feeling and face our vulnerability with loving kindness. I am here to say, I have lived it to give it, and once we put this into practice, we will start to develop a more fearless heart space for our children. It is this heart space where they too can become the socially and emotionally healthy people that we desire and that the world needs.

Struggling with Transitions?

You can learn more about strengthening your social and emotional muscles at a free virtual pop-up event Navigating Life’s Transitions – You Are Not Alone, Thursday, October 14, 2021, 7-8pm ET.  

Grab your spot here: