Life itself is a process of transitions, beginning with those of moving through and mastering the developmental steps from infancy to adulthood. Yet the transitions required by the events of the last two years have demanded new and previously untested abilities of adaptation. All the familiar patterns of adjustment were interrupted by the advent of the pandemic, involving not only disruption but fear of the unknown and the loss of familiar sources of reassurance.
As parents, we are responsible for our children. That means we are trying to teach them how to live in the world – a world that has schedules, and often the need to comply with others’ requests that we may not like. Hopefully, as adults we have learned those lessons while growth and maturation have given us the ability to carry them out. Yet, we too, have been confronted with a changed world that has challenged our capacity for adaptation.
Transitions are hard – especially for young children. They often resist just moving from one activity to another, even when the change is to something they like doing. They as yet do not have the tools they need to be flexible moving from one thing to another. They get stuck in the moment – even a bad moment, as parents can attest trying to move children out of such a moment. They don’t yet have our sense of time or the ability to be future oriented.
Parental requests feel like an intrusion. It is not only that what we are asking them to do next doesn’t seem relevant, but it is also their frustration at having to leave something that is pleasurable. The frustration involved in making transitions is something they still haven’t mastered. Then at the point in development at which their wish for autonomy comes into it, they begin to rebel against being told what to do – being “bossed”.
Young children also have trouble calling up within themselves experiences or feelings they are not having at that moment. If they are disappointed, angry, or sad, that becomes the totality of what life is all about. It seems impossible that they will get over anything that is happening, or that they are feeling. They want to have and do what brings them pleasure and are not yet ready to defer, or give up what they want, in the service of a larger goal. It is also hard to wait for what they want, or to imagine that there will be other times of fun in the future. The concept of time is abstract – compared to now.
For these reasons, children often seem to regress whenever there is a significant change in their lives, such as a parent’s absence or even after an illness. The seeming regression reflects the fact that developmental steps are not yet firmly in place and are easily interrupted by changes in familiar routines and daily patterns of behavior.
Yet the changes that have disrupted all our lives over the past months may have brought about a regression in adults, too, in parents as well as children. We continue to be challenged by ongoing changes such as the need for masks and social distancing and now the relaxation of those rules. Many adults resisted complying with such rules initially and now find themselves resisting the interruption of adjustments that were difficult to make initially with hard-won compliance.
As we process the losses we have experienced during this time, school, work, graduations, weddings, children about to leave for college, perhaps we can gain a deeper understanding of the transitions challenging children just to grow up.