Transitions and Your Child’s Story

~ By Rebecca Thompson

Florida in April is usually a glorious time. It is a wonderful time for getting outside and enjoying the weather and it is also, for my son anyway, time to get back into the pool!


I confess that I harbor a small sense of dread when I take him to the pool. Even though he’s 9, the transition out of the pool can sometimes be a challenge for us. Getting in doesn’t seem to be a problem. But getting out? You’d think I was asking him to memorize the constitution or do my taxes instead of climb into my waiting towel.


Some children have a harder time than others with transitions. Go to any playground for an afternoon and you’ll see many different scenarios, some pretty good, others a bit scary. For some children, leaving the playground is seemingly effortless. Are those parents just better at bribing their kids? Turns out the answer may have something to do with their very early life.


Hang with me for a few minutes and consider what I’m about to say with curiosity about your own children and their story.


According to Ray Castellino of BEBA, Building and Enhancing Bonding and Attachment, in Santa Barbara, CA, anytime we do something for the first time, we create an imprint of that event. The way that we come into the world, for example, creates a very strong imprint. This imprint, especially if something overwhelming happened at the time of birth, for example, can affect the way that we move through our later transitions.


Take for example a mom, Karen, who contacted me about her son, Sam, now age 3, who was struggling with any transition where he had to get dressed or undressed. Karen dreaded bath time every evening because there was always a fit in the process. She just wanted him to cooperate with her, but instead of being relaxed by the bath everyone was completely stressed out. Karen had tried everything she could think of to stop his upsets, but nothing seemed to help. She was more than willing to listen to what I had to say if it might help, even if it was a bit unconventional.


I took a very thorough history and asked about his birth. Karen explained that Sam’s birth had been very traumatic. In fact, he had become stuck in the birth canal when the cord had become tightly wrapped around his neck. They didn’t realize for quite a while that it was the cord slowing his descent and causing him distress.


I wondered if Sam’s birth had anything to do with the way he was moving through his transitions. I’ve discovered in my work that when a child is having a challenge during transitions, we can look back to early life transitions and often find something that was overwhelming for the baby, most of the time for both parents and the baby. As his mom was telling me the story of his birth, she suddenly understood why her son was having so much trouble with dressing and undressing.


Early memories are not stored in the brain in the same way things are stored in the brain when we’re older. Early memories are stored in the body, or in somatic memory. When young children have experiences that feel the same as something else that happened earlier, they tend to respond as if it were happening for the first time. Since they can’t tell you their story, they are showing you their story through their behavior. And they will keep showing you what happened until you understand.


For Sam, the feeling of something tight on his neck was causing him to feel distressed and helpless, in much the same way as he must have felt when he became stuck during his birth. While we started with a working hypothesis, the real surprise was in the changes we saw when we supported him through his early story. Through going back and retelling the birth story to Sam in a particular way, Karen was able to help Sam move through the bath time transitions. Within just a couple of weeks, Sam was able to get dressed and have clothing go over his head without much of a fuss. She became very mindful of these transitions and was able to create a supportive environment where she could nurture Sam through it. They both experienced a lot of healing in the process. And Sam was now actually cooperative when it was time to get dressed or undressed!


Next month, I’ll be describing the process of story sharing and how you can create more connection and healing with your child through transitions. I’ll share my own story of how I supported my 9 year-old to move more easily through his transitions through story sharing and I’ll let you know how it goes with the pool transitions.


In the meantime, consider your child’s early story. What is the story of your child’s early life, beginning at conception? What “rough” spots were there for you? For your child? Could something that happened early in life need some extra support? Is it possible that this early event is showing up in your child’s daily life during transitions? Be curious. Watch your kids during transition times. With new eyes, what you see just might surprise you.

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