Wednesday Wisdom

June 29, 2022

Touchstones and Transition

By Dr Kathy Weston

Touchstones and Transition


It is that time of year again when children and young people attend transition events at school, college or university, designed to support them effectively through the next stages of their educational journeys.

It can be shocking, daunting even, to consider how quickly our children are growing and developing. “How can my baby suddenly be entering senior school?” parents ask, “How is my first born old enough to leave home and go to university?” The realisation that our children are turning into teens or young adults, or that they could be actually old enough to leave home requires a psychological adjustment on our part too. Whilst some parents may relish witnessing their child leap from stage to stage, others might feel a genuine sense of grief or loss at these pivotal points.

Adolescence is a time of intense change, transition, developmental leaps, identity confusion, ambiguity and self-discovery. However, our identity as mum or dad also undergoes some uncomfortable jolts around these key transitional stages and it is not unusual to experience our own identity flux as our children develop and grow. Who we are changes in relation to who they are becoming. Sometimes (not always), this might mean that we are more negative about their next steps than perhaps we should be. Parental anxiety means that we are less likely to allow our children to experience and embrace new challenges. Sometimes, our own personal experiences of change can colour our views on those that lie ahead for our children. We can all feel a little vulnerable and worried witnessing our children enter situations where we can’t control the broad outcome.

As tough as it is, we need to come to terms with the fact our children are destined to grow up, and we need to be able to stomach the fact they will eventually, in most cases, fly the nest.


When anticipating change, it is good to focus on what we can control in any given situation. It is also a good idea to consider how we might help anchor ourselves and our children psychologically so that we are all as resilient as possible to what comes next.

Broadly, this means knowing who we are, what we are about and who is there for us. Essentially, it is an exercise in familiarity where we recognise all of our personal and social assets. Self-knowledge and self-understanding anchor children psychologically. Actively considering these things prompts retrospection and reflection, both of which can promote resilience. It sounds simple, but by doing this sort of ‘identity work’, our children can feel more grounded, and become more likely to weather the challenges inherent within change.

In the summer ahead of a substantial change, we want our children to lean into their own lives even more; spend as much as time as they can with those that love and value them, doing activities that they relish and which enhance their self-esteem, social skills and body confidence.

In the run up to change, we can do some practical things with our children. Ask them who they would like to stay in touch with from their previous setting. Make sure that you support them to attend exit ceremonies and events and to say some high quality goodbyes. Following that, you might consider increasing their sense of familiarity with the new setting they are entering. Have they visited? Do they know anyone else who will be going? Have they practised getting there by transport? Have you surfaced any worries or wobbles together, and proactively worked through these, seeking solutions?

If your child is off to secondary or senior school and is about to receive a new phone, try not to leave chats about digital values, digital hygiene and online behaviour until the night before school starts. Expectations around sleep is an important discussion point too. All children need to know that sleep quality impacts on how they feel and learn. Getting into the routine of the school sleep schedule ahead of school start is optimal, otherwise early starts can be gruelling!

Just at the same time as children progress to ‘big’ school, parents might feel that it’s time to back off and let them be ‘independent’. To a certain extent this is true, but rest assured, they need you more than ever, albeit in a slightly evolved role. We need to scaffold their independence rather than simply remove support.

Older students may be full of concomitant excitement and nerves as they venture further afield. Their transition might include relocation to another part of the country, abrupt separation from close friends and a step change in terms of workload and expectations. Again, familiarity can reduce anxiety, so pre-visits to halls of residence or dorms can help, as can making connections within their new setting that they can lean on if needed. Encourage them to seek information out, ahead of time, that might be useful upon arrival. Where is the student support office? Where is the pastoral support? How does the social side of things work? Is there anyone with experience of the setting who they can talk to, ahead of time, to help answer any questions?

If we can help our children to map out available support and to understand the new systems and structures that they will soon have to adhere to, we can promote their sense of agency and help them to feel more settled upon arrival.


Everybody feels a bit wobbly when change occurs. Why? Because both social relationships and the environment are new and we have to invest time and energy in establishing connections and networks within which we can comfortably thrive. Students are much more likely to do well if they feel they can be their authentic selves.

Young people heading off to boarding school, university or college for the first time, often choose to personalise their new space; an act of necessity in anchoring themselves. They might put up pictures of loved ones or family pets, add posters of role models to the wall, or display keepsakes from home. ‘Place identity’ is integrally tied to our personal and social identity. The more we can help our children to feel part of their new community, the more likely it is that they will settle well. Place belonging is a protective asset, but it can take time and patience as new connections and associations form.

Have confidence in your child’s ability to settle and cope. Not every wobbly phone call home requires parental reaction (or overreaction). Always validate and listen to how they are feeling, and then try to gently nudge them towards taking proactive steps to feel better, encouraging them to develop strategies for optimal integration into their new lives.

If things are going well for your child and they sound happy in messages or the phone, remember to notice and comment on it: “You sound happy! What is going well for you at the moment? What do you think is working for you?” By encouraging this sort of reflection, we give our children an opportunity to take a step back and consider the factors that are working and to celebrate the fact that they have begun to successfully navigate the first part of this next stage of their lives. They will also be able to hear our pleasure that they are growing up and our confidence in their ability to not just survive, but to thrive.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Parents in Tooled Up schools can take advantage of a whole range of resources about moving to new settings, whether that’s a young child starting nursery or a teen embarking on university.

Parents of the very young might like to watch our webinar on helping children to navigate change, read our top tips on school readiness and download our summer sticker challenge, which is perfect for building young children’s pride and confidence in their own abilities in the run up to starting school. Print out the poster, pop it on your wall, grab some little star stickers and see how many your child can get. They will love filling it in! We also have a useful list of books that can open up conversations about change and you might like to browse through our Tooled Up tips about starting primary school. Phew!

If your child is moving on to secondary school, check out our top ten tips or, if you are short on time, read our helpful ‘dos and don’ts’ when it comes to managing this change.

If your teen is heading off to university this autumn, make sure that you take a look at our relevant resources. Read our tips for supporting your child as they embark on their studies and check out our useful university packing checklist. We’ve also just published a fantastic new resource to help autistic teens with moving on to university, co-created with a leading expert on neurodiversity and a young person with lived experience.

With exams finishing this week in much of the UK, and party season upon us, don’t forget to join us on Thursday evening at 7.30pm for our live chat with criminal defence lawyer, Harriett Mather, to get her expert advice on planning for festivities effectively and safely. Book your free ticket now.