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Life is Full of Transitions

Retirement: “removal or withdrawal from service, office, or business;” “withdrawal into privacy or seclusion.”

No wonder this word retirement seems so inappropriate as a description of what I, and many others, am in the process of doing. I will no longer be seeing patients and, at least for the moment, not generating an income. But I am still a psychologist and I am certainly not going into seclusion! No, this is about a transition, one of many that we all go through.

In fact, as I reflected on this new phase of my life, I began to realize that life is actually a constant series of an immense number of transitions. There are some so tiny as to be imperceptible and whose impact kind of sneaks up on you. This can be gradual changes in a relationship, our experiences at work, or changes in our body.

Of course, we often experience obvious, and sometimes traumatic, transitions in any of these aspects of our life. It really is amazing how much change is constantly taking place, which means people are required to be constantly coping with transitions, the desired or chosen ones and the undesired, and, in some cases, inevitable ones, such as those associated with aging or loss.

One of the primary characteristics of childhood is how little control children have over the transitions that they constantly must make. Their bodies seem to change overnight and not just when they are very young. How often do ask our teenager how he could possibly have outgrown his clothes already?

We love to watch our preschoolers go through their stages of sitting, crawling, walking, running…reaching things we thought were safely put beyond their grasp…suddenly able to ride their bike without training wheels, then pushing to ride beyond the boundaries that we feel are safe.

Meanwhile, we are placing these little ones in day care, nursery school, and then we put them into school, where they are required to move from grade to grade, each year adjusting to new teachers, classmates, school buildings, and increasingly challenging academic and social learning.

Children vary widely in the inborn capacity to manage these changes. One of the things I learned from reading William Bridges’s “Transitions” (Addison-Wesley, 1980) is that everyone focuses too much on the new challenges about to be faced and not enough on the challenge of letting go of where we were. For example, parents are surprised when a child isn’t excited about summer vacation. Some children are much more comfortable with the structure and content of the school day.

I think that the better the child’s experience with a situation, the more difficult it might be to let go and move on. The mother who creates a wonderful time at home for her very young child should not be surprised at her daughter’s resistance to go off to school, even though she seems so well-adjusted, social, and bright. When this happens, we look for the bad. Maybe we are looking in the wrong place for an answer.

Of course, the child who did not have a good experience with a particular teacher may be very excited about moving on while the child who loved elementary school may not be eager to transition to middle school. Years ago, most school systems had junior highs, where 7th and 8th graders were isolated from other grades.

Gradually people realized this was not a good idea and now most systems have middle schools which usually include at least 6th, if not 5th, graders. One reason why this change was needed is that children grow at such varied rates, physically, socially, and emotionally. There are such dramatic transitions in early adolescence. Seventh grade girls show a substantial variation in height and physical appearance. Seventh grade boys can range from those who are children to those who are young men. By including younger children in a middle school setting, the teens who are still really children can find compatible peers and not feel so out of place.

But the key issue here is that children have very little say about all these changes they must make. Some respond by wanting to grow up quickly and be more in charge of their lives. Parents are often distressed about their children who are constantly pushing limits and wanting more freedom, who seem to be forever complaining that life is not fair.

Other children accept the transitions, at least these predictable ones, fairly easily, while other seem to not be in any hurry to grow up and keep trying to hold onto the old rather than embrace the new. Meanwhile, some just cannot manage these transitions and are prone to major meltdowns over seemingly every little thing that they must adjust to.

Parents tend to think they are the primary influence in how children deal with these transitions. Certainly how these changes are presented, what choices children are given, and how clearly their feelings are heard and validated all can help children learn to be more comfortable with the constant transitions in their lives.

But a significant piece of this is a reflection of their inborn temperament and parents need to learn to recognize and support the differences in their children rather than label them as good or bad and try to “fix” the children who might struggle a bit more with transitions. Conveying the message that your child’s way of dealing with things is within the normal range of variation and emphasizing the strengths rather than the weaknesses goes a long way toward creating a more resilient, confident child.

I’ve only barely touched on all the transitions children face. Meanwhile, what about those that their parents deal with? You go from being single to married to having children. These are the most obvious, major transitions. Many more are embedded into your lives. You must adjust to the changes in the marital relationship, which includes letting go of your family of origin. Whether it is close ties or a history of conflict and hurt, the challenge of transitioning fully into your marriage is made complex by this history.

In fact, your own childhood pattern of dealing with transitions is likely to present itself in how you deal with marital changes and the friendships you have, lose, or maintain as well as financial and career issues. If you are having trouble with the myriad transitions you must deal with, look first at what you learned about how to view change as a child. Sometimes we are being held captive by outmoded ways of viewing the world and the decisions we have to make.

Society goes through its own transitions that, in turn influence what we must deal with and how we cope with those changes. Obvious examples are how rapid changes in technology are dramatically altering the way we live. Meanwhile, it was not so long ago that there were major changes in women’s roles, divorce rates, and careers (one company, loyal to the end; the disappearance of entire industries). Meanwhile we live longer and being a senior is now viewed very differently than it was only a decade or so ago. Some of us age comfortably and some spend enormous sums on cosmetic surgery trying to hold onto our “youthful looks.” Remember what Bridges said, that successful transitions begin with successful letting go of the past.

Of course what everyone asks me is what are you going to do when you retire? Being a planner, I already have a list to start with. Something old, like playing bridge again; expanding present activities, like working out more and learning to be a better photographer; something new, like taking up golf and trying to learn to play the piano; some projects that I haven’t had time for, like scanning 88 trays of slides onto my computer. This is my transition phase plan, keeping myself busy, having fun. What I see further ahead is a desired unknown. When my plate is clear and things have settled out, where might my interests take me? What new adventures might I embark on? That’s the deeper level of excitement I have about this transition called “retirement.”

But, am I really going to be able to let go of my past so easily? How will I really feel about not seeing patients any more? How much will I miss the office I have spent 31 years in and the colleagues I have grown close to? How will I experience not pursuing activities as a psychologist? What will it be like to not earn money, something I’ve been doing since I was 12 years old? How will my being retired and my wife still be working change the dynamics of our marriage?

Well, I am about to find out the answers to those questions. Most importantly, I am aware that those answers will determine how successful this transition goes for me and if I struggle, at least I will know where to look first for the reasons why.

Life is Full of Transitions

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Life is Full of Transitions. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.