Change is external and universal. Summer and winter happen to all of us. Transition is how each of us experiences a change. Transitions are individualized and reflect the thoughts and feelings a person has about how they experience a change. In a group of ten people, there are 10 transitions happening in response to one seasonal change.
Dr. Elaine Aron in The Highly Sensitive Person identifies how highly sensitive people and empaths have nervous systems that deeply process information, can become overstimulated and overwhelmed, are highly empathic and emotionally reactive, and are responsive to stimuli.
These personality qualities can be a blessing and a curse when HSPs/empaths go through transitions. Sometimes we benefit from the extra emotion and information we take in during transitions; other times, we quickly become overstimulated and overwhelmed.
As parents, we are responsible for managing our own experiences of transition while guiding our children through those transitions at the same time. It’s no wonder that times like summer, which are filled with transitions, are tough on families!
Here are some strategies to help you navigate times of great transitions:
Name the Changes and Transitions and Build Compassion
Too often we assume that summer should be easy. Leisure, good weather, and family togetherness are supposed to be a recipe for good times. And for people with school-aged children, the end of the school year is supposed to bring freedom and ease. Except…those changes are not necessarily easier than the routines we’ve spent 9 months honing.
And the sheer volume of potential changes can be staggering: pausing school and school-based activities; starting new activities; new daily routines and changing levels of structure; childcare that may fluctuate daily or weekly; observing summer holidays; heat, long days, summer storms; fireworks and raucous social events; and preparing for, going on, and recovery after vacations that are themselves full of change and transition.
Take a moment and name to yourself or write down all the changes that are happening in your family this summer (or whatever period of change you’re experiencing). Then acknowledge what the transition is like for you and the rest of your household. You’re probably feeling a mix of happy, excited, bored, guilty, stressed, anxious, dread, overwhelmed, and more. Our kids are having a similarly wide range of emotional response to summer.
Naming our experiences can help us find compassion for ourselves and our kids as we transition. I recently encouraged a client of mine, a mom of a rising first-grader and a preschooler who works full-time outside the home, to name the changes that are happening in her household this summer. She focused on the changes to her childcare arrangements—a fluctuating mix of camps and relatives helping to cover the times when she or her husband cannot take time off to be with their kids. Naming these changes and sitting with her feelings about the transitions allowed her to acknowledge how hard it is for her and her highly sensitive kids to barely get used to a childcare routine before a new one starts.
By looking at the positive and the challenging aspects of this experience, she was able to soften her response to herself and her children. Instead of being impatient and critical, she could feel tenderly for her family as they juggle competing needs and limited resources. This kind of compassion can help HSP/empath moms work toward accepting themselves and their children.
Highly sensitive/empath mamas are at an advantage when it comes to summer transitions. Not only do we recognize what is happening for us and our children, but we also have the emotional, intuitive alignment with our children to know how to help them cope. This kind of emotional connection to support our children’s emotions is known as emotion co-regulation.
When we co-regulate with our kids, we use our own emotional wisdom to soothe ourselves and then model those skills and coach our children to use them. If we are noticing that we and our child are getting stressed by the pace of summer activities or if our child is testing the limits of an unstructured environment, we can help them slow down, name their feelings, and experiment with making small changes to get their emotional needs met.
Get Back to Basics
During periods of change, it can be easy to get carried away from the basics that help us feel grounded and well. Summer can be a time of too much junk (food, media, alcohol) and not enough (quality rest, quiet time, solitude). We can quickly become overstimulated and overwhelmed.
See if you can recognize when the balance has shifted for you or your kids. Perhaps you institute daily quiet time as a family or plan a day at home after a vacation before everyone resumes work and childcare activities. If your kids are running on snacks, see how they respond to adding some frozen grapes or other whole foods to the mix. Maybe they need relief from feeling hot and sticky from sunscreen, and it’s time for a cool shower or bath in a dimmed bathroom.
Surviving Sibling Rivalry
Bickering, taunting, picking fights: sibling rivalry is harder on parents than on the kids. Periods of high change tend to bring out sibling rivalry. Summer is a good time to practice strategies like:
- Paying less attention to it. Let your children work things out unless there is a safety issue. In that case, separate the kids and allow them to calm down before engaging them in coming to a joint solution.
- Reminding your kids that fair is not always equal. Your older child might be allowed to walk to their friend’s house alone, while your younger needs to go with an adult. Emphasize to your children that some decisions are based on age and development, not on equality.
- Shifting to cooperative activities. If clean-up time tends to bring out the comparisons and whining about who has done more, create a “beat the clock” scenario. If your kids work together to finish the chore before the timer sounds, everyone gets a treat (snuggles, a popsicle, 5 extra minutes of screen time).
- Giving each family member a vital role in a family activity, based on each person’s ability. For example, at lunch time, you could get the plates out of the cupboard and pour drinks. Your oldest might wash and cut up apples, the middle child might make PB&Js, and the toddler might put everything onto plates. Lunch is ready and it took all the members of the team to make it happen
- Creating one-on-one time with each child. Establish a routine for spending time with each child, letting them choose the activity. This could be as little as 10-15 minutes if that’s what fits into your summer schedule or a couple hours, as long as you give each child equal access to your undivided attention.
Manage Parent-Child Conflict Through Clear Expectations and Boundaries
Transitions can be confusing to children since rules and norms are often in flux. Letting your kids know your expectations ahead of time can help prevent conflict. For instance, as you’re getting ready to go to the pool for the first time this season, you can review your expectations. For the toddler: you must wear your puddle jumper whenever you’re in the water. For your teen: you can go off with your friends, but you may not leave the pool grounds without asking me for permission first.
Setting boundaries can also help manage parent-child conflict. Boundaries in relationships are about where one person ends and the other begins. They help us communicate how we expect to be treated by people and what we are willing to do for other people. Some boundaries in the examples above would be letting your toddler know that you will not take them into the water if they don’t wear their puddle jumper. You may tell your teen that if they leave the pool without asking permission, they will need to stay with the family next time instead of having the freedom to hang out with their friends.
Boundaries help guide behavior. They let kids know what they can do and the consequences if they choose not to respect the boundaries you set. Parents benefit from setting boundaries in advance, because we don’t need to figure out on the fly how to respond to our children’s behavior. This can be especially helpful for highly sensitive/empath mamas, who can find it overwhelming to deal with a child’s behavior in public if we’re caught off guard or don’t have a clear sense of what our own boundaries are.
The summer transitions can feel intense, especially when we’re trying to make the most of the season. Remind yourself that summer is temporary. It is not a make-or-break experience for you, your children, or your family. It’s just summer. Take some of the pressure off yourself by putting summer back into context.
When we step back from the pressure we put on ourselves to make summer a magical, memorable experience, we can let our highly sensitive nervous systems calm down enough to get through the transitions. Perhaps summer won’t be that bad after all. And even if it is, autumn is right around the corner.
Lori L. Cangilla, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and creator of Singularly Sensitive, an approach that helps highly sensitive/empath women find creative, holistic, mindful ways to grow. She is the author of Self-Acceptance and Change: A Guided Journal for Highly Sensitive People.
Lori will be hosting a free workshop, Going through the Summer Transition with your Kids as a Highly Sensitive Person/Empath, on June 22, 2022, 6:30-7:30 PM Central. Please join us to get support for your summer transitions and participate in a guided visualization to empower you to use your sensitivity to support yourself and your children. Register HERE.