Summer is drawing to a close. Fall clothes and leaf rakes are moving front and center in stores. School supplies are prominently displayed even in grocery stores. We’re entering an annual period of transition. Transitions can be challenging for anybody, but for someone dealing with ADHD, they can be even more difficult.
We often think of January as the time of transitions and goal setting. It’s the start of a new year, so we appropriately ponder new beginnings and may even make resolutions to improve our lives in one or more ways.
But there is another season of transitions and new beginnings that comes in August and September, at least in the US where many people’s lives revolve more around the school year than the calendar year. Summer vacation ends and the new school year begins. This can be a big transition, not only for the students who are moving up a grade, but also for their families and friends who support and care about them. In addition, families often relocate over the summer, so along with the kids starting new schools the adults may be starting new jobs as well.
Transitions are part of moving forward in our lives. They are normal, but they are not always welcome or easy. There are three main elements in any transition: the ending of the old thing, a period of time between the old thing and the new thing, and the start of the new thing. To successfully navigate a transition, it can help to understand just what is going on in those three stages.
Let’s look at a simple transition we all engage in every day — the transition from inactive sleep to active waking.
Stage 1 – End of Sleep. That usually occurs when your alarm goes off and you (hopefully!) wake up. Some folks with ADHD may need more than one alarm to wake them, but however it happens, the ringing of the alarm and lifting your head represents the end of sleep.
This stage can be characterized by
- resistance (I want to stay in bed!)
- confusion (Where am I? Oh, I’m in my new dorm room.)
- sadness (Did Grandma and Grandpa really go home last night?)
- anxiety (I don’t want to get up and talk with my new boss today.)
Stage 2 – Between Time. You’re awake, but not fully. You might be a little groggy, wondering what day it is, having trouble keeping your eyes open. You are between sleep and full wakefulness.
This stage might involve
- excitement (Isn’t this finally the day we go on our trip?)
- grief (No wonder I feel so down. This is the first new day since I lost my job. I don’t know where to start.)
- learning (I think this is the morning I start my new exercise program! What did I decide to do exactly – and why?)
- stepping back (I need to pause and breathe because I’m already overwhelmed with my responsibilities and I’m not even quite awake.)
Stage 3 – Start of Wakefulness. Your feet are on the floor and you’re heading for the bathroom to splash some water on your face and brush your teeth. You are entering a state of being fully awake.
In this stage you are
- starting to feel good about the changes (This is the day I get to sign up for my new schedule and I can’t wait!)
- accepting the reality of the new situation (I have three people I will contact today about a job, and am excited about them and new opportunities.)
- accepting the new conditions as part of who you are right now (I remember! I am going to start my running program today because there is a half marathon I’m planning to enter!)
- still feeling a little overwhelmed but without so much resistance (There is a lot to do, but this is my new life and I’m ready to embrace it.)
So, a transition usually begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. The stages aren’t distinct and there can be moving back and forth between stages, but usually something like this progression occurs.
How can we better manage transitions? People with ADHD always seem to be moving to a new thing almost before they have time to settle in to the old thing, so it may seem counterintuitive that transitions can be especially challenging for them. But there may be a few times every day when someone with ADHD gets into a groove, a flow, and everything is going smoothly. It can be quite a challenge to drop what you’re doing and move on when the present moment is so fulfilling and engrossing. It can be like not wanting to wake up from a deep sleep. There is a lot of resistance! What can you do?
When at all possible, prepare for the transition in advance.
If you know a transition is coming, talk about it as much as possible. Eliminate all of the unknowns that it’s possible to eliminate. In the case of a new school or new job, visit the location and meet people. See if you can tour offices, classrooms, gym, cafeteria, auditorium, and all the areas that will be the setting for the coming months. Might there be an orientation, an opportunity to meet the teachers or co-workers, even some online videos that might eliminate some of the unknowns? Take advantage of everything you can find to fill in the knowledge gaps. Information can help calm fears and anxiety.
Be compassionate with yourself and others experiencing difficult transitions.
Be available to listen when someone wants to share what he is finding difficult. Your compassionate understanding with another person and also with yourself can make a big difference. After you’ve listened fully, if it seems appropriate, you might share a story about when you faced a challenging transition, how you dealt with your feelings, and how it all worked out for you. For example, I’ve told quite a few people about my experience when my family moved to a different state just before my senior year in high school. That was a big uprooting and transition for me, but it actually helped prepare me for the next year’s even bigger transition – going off to college.
Roleplaying can increase comfort.
A friend, colleague, or parent might help with some informal roleplaying to ease the discomfort of the upcoming unknown situation. Even just a little bit of thinking through and even speaking aloud possible conversations can create a greater sense of empowerment toward an upcoming unknown situation. Dr. Robert Maurer describes “mind sculpture,” in his wonderful little book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. If you’re interested in learning more about going beyond roleplaying, I strongly recommend reading his book. Mind sculpture is only one of many “small steps” he describes and recommends.
So, transitions are normal, a part of any life that is moving forward, and at times challenging. Recognizing that the challenges they bring with them are also normal can help us relax a bit when we find ourselves in the midst of them. Taking small steps forward while caring for ourselves as we progress through whatever challenges may arise will help us arrive at the new place with new learnings and even perhaps some new skills and strategies in place – all of which we can use during our next transition!