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Opinion & Essays - Mar, 2001 Issue #79 

By Kristie Vollar
(208) 267-5550

Many parents are beginning the transition stage of the journey. That is, they are preparing for their child to leave a program and return home. So I felt it was appropriate to focus strictly on transition in this article.

Transitioning from a school or program isn’t easy, especially when the child has been exclusively interacting with the program. In my case, I was isolated at an all girls school that was self- contained; there had been no need to go anywhere. The only people we saw, with the exception of going to the doctor/dentist or on an “outing,” were the staff that worked there, the food service guy and the UPS man. We rarely even saw the neighbors, and if we did, we didn’t communicate with them. 

Living exclusively in a closed community for a year or two changes a person. There is a sense of safety, even when newcomers come in, due to a consistent schedule and familiar, if not comfortable, surroundings. I’m not saying that the whole process was comfortable, but when you have lived somewhere with a good structure long enough, you begin to feel comfortable with your surroundings. To even think about leaving the safe place and moving on to the “real world” is very intimidating, somewhat stressful, exciting…. 

When it was time for me to come home, I felt all of this and more. I suddenly became unsure of myself. I was afraid of failure, but I was also afraid of how to interact with the rest of the world since I had been in such an excluded world. I was excited to be coming home to my parents, excited to be moving on to college. I was nervous about seeing my “old friends” and intimidated with having to tell them that I had changed and there was no room for them in my life anymore. I felt sad that I was leaving so many good friends behind, to continue their progress, yet happy with the progress that I was making and that I was coming home. With all of these feelings bouncing around in my head, I knew that the one sure way to regress into past behaviors was to be secretive about what I was feeling and not share when something bothered me. As a result, we formulated a plan for my homecoming. We set up an agreement that helped me continue my progress even after I returned home. Every day I filled out a checklist of things to do to keep my mind off old friends, and continue the structure that I had at MMS. The checklist was more for structure than anything because I had lived in a highly structured boarding school, and I felt safe. 

Every night, and often throughout the day, my parents and I would sit down and “check in” with each other. If there seemed to be a problem, we would work through it together. If they saw me acting out in a certain way, they would point it out to me and we worked through it together. They weren’t afraid to confront me (or if they were, they supported me enough not to show it), and if they did something that I had a hard time with, or let me get away with something, I confronted them and we worked through it together. 

Another thing that helped with the transition was a friend of my mom’s. She had been through similar experiences as mine, and had worked through them. She was strong and supportive, and had been through 12-Step programs. She was an anchor for me and provided a positive presence; she would listen to me when I needed a friend. We spent time together, and I didn’t feel the need to go get attention from anyone. I had stared my loneliness in the face and won, so I could actually begin friendships based on honesty instead of having a secret need. 

Support groups help. The only 12-Step meetings in my little town, however, were AA meetings and since I wasn’t an alcoholic, I didn’t feel comfortable going to one of them. If there had been a 12-Step group for relationship addicts, I would have been there, faithfully. I believe that a child needs a variety of “new” friends to help keep her strong. A similar group to the one at my program would have helped me. 

Sometimes talking with people who have been though what you have helps. You can see them share their lives, see their success, and as you feel more confident, you begin to share yours. Talking openly about things you have done or things you feel can be very healthy, and when someone has been there before you, you don’t feel so secluded and alone. I personally feel more comfortable talking to someone who has been there, because they know basically how I feel from personal experience rather than reading and/or learning it from a book and really having no idea. 

Finding the right type of support group isn’t easy. The parents can help, but it is up to the child to make the decision to go. Family groups can sometimes be helpful. They let the child know that the parents are there in support of them, and willing to continue to work with them. The important thing to remember though, is that it is the child’s need, and her decision as to whether or not she should go. She shouldn’t be forced with ultimatums; this could actually reverse her progress. To find programs, you can look in the local paper, where meetings are often listed, or call the District Attorney’s office or the Sheriff’s office. They usually know where the meetings are in their area. 

Whether the child has returned from a long-term residential school, a short-term program, or a wilderness, the child will need a lot of family support. Probably the biggest part of my transition was the support I continued to get from my parents. As we worked through the trials ahead, we did it together as a family, each putting in as much as we were taking out and supporting each other as we continued our journey. The advice I have for those parents who are experiencing the transition stage is to listen to your children. Watch for those moments when they struggle and guide them to making the right decisions; make suggestions but don’t force them and don’t threaten. I struggled with decisions after I returned home, my parents watched me struggle, and they asserted their support and watched me as I eventually made the right decisions. Fear breeds insanity, and when not addressed, it breeds anger and frustration. Hiding feelings and behaviors leads to secrets and manipulations, and ultimately possible failure. When you’re having feelings, share them; when you’re struggling, reach out and ask for help; when you see someone else struggling, again, reach out and work together. In my opinion, working together is part of the foundation of life.

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