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How to Transition Well in a Season of Chaos

1. Give your people space to speak up and process.

Silence is not always a good sign. We often misread silent cooperation as a sign of compliance and agreement, when, in fact, what is going on internally is the complete opposite. The silent follower will eventually silently walk away.

I would much rather have a very vocal response to transition and change in the people I am leading – whether family or team – because then, I know exactly what is going on in their minds and hearts. A vocal dissent can be addressed. Knowing where the pain point is, or where the frustration lies, allows me to know how to better walk with someone through the transition. Silence seems golden, but it can be very costly. Navigating through unhappy and frustrated discussions is much more likely to turn into authentic support and authentic compliance.

When we moved to Malawi with our four children, there was a great deal of negative discourse on the whole matter.

Our oldest daughter was sixteen years old and knew exactly all of the amazing experiences she would be missing during the course of our first term. She was extremely vocal in expressing her anger and grief. I had no question in my mind where Sydney stood regarding our move to Malawi. She was very clear, even to the point of emphatically declaring, “I hate Africa!” There was no confusion. Her honest and verbal expression of her feelings gave us all the raw material we needed to walk alongside her through the process of transition.

Our older son, Jackson, was 12, on the verge of turning 13. He, too, was highly expressive with his negative feelings about living in Malawi. He was also dealing with severe anxiety, which began to surface the year prior to our move. He was struggling both overtly and internally with this transition. As difficult as it was to hear and receive all of Jackson’s negativity, we allowed him the space he needed to explode and process. It tore at our hearts, but at least we knew what was going on in that head of his. Even when he went silent, the physical manifestation of his anxiety gave him away. These outward and inward expressions of upset allowed us to know where he was and how to walk him through each phase of the transition process.

Our second daughter, aged 14, was our silent follower. Brooklyn is a peacemaker. She longs for harmony and will sacrifice her own needs in order to keep everyone happy. Her biggest fear in all of this transition was being an additional “burden” (her perception) on her parents. And so, she quietly went along, while feeling all the same emotions and fears as her siblings. I had a sense that she wasn’t doing as well as she was trying to portray, but oftentimes, due to the very loud and negative voices echoing through our home, her quiet struggles were buried.

Brooklyn wasn’t just wrestling with the grief of losing her life in the United States; of all of our older three children, she experienced, what I would refer to as, the most “trauma” at their new school. She was unjustly, and inappropriately, reprimanded by the headmistress for something she did not do; she was the target of ongoing teasing by the boys in her class, while simultaneously the girls in her class ignored her and marginalized her; and when she was struggling to understand a concept in math, her teacher yelled at her for asking questions (thankfully, he apologized to both Brooklyn and us, quickly recognizing his out-of-bounds behavior). It was awful. Brooklyn, our easy-going, life-loving girl, went deeply inward. She pretended to be sick in order to miss school and walked around in a state of apathy for the greater part of those first six months.

It took Covid-19 and a quarantine to give us a chance to dig deep into the heart of what Brooklyn was going through. I often reflect on what a gift Covid-19 was for our family. While Brooklyn followed along and didn’t rock the boat, out of our three older children, she was the one that was probably at the most critical place of brokenness by the time we were able to address her pain. I remember doing a Bible study with her and Sydney during our quarantine, and she shared with me that she was angry at God. Her pain was deep. Her grief was intense. Those precious months of processing with her opened up a tremendous opportunity for healing.

As difficult as it is as a parent, or a leader, to hear dissent, to hear the irritation and frustration of those we are leading through change, we have to challenge ourselves to see it as a gift, not a burden. Like I said at the beginning, I would much rather hear, and know, how my people are feeling – the good, the bad, and the ugly – than to think that because everyone is smiling and going along with everything without complaint that all is well. I can guarantee one thing for sure, no matter what the change or transition, there will always be internal struggles, fears, and negative feelings at some point. It is inevitable, and perhaps why there are so many books written on leading through change (Managing Transitions, by William Bridges; Tempered Resilience, by Tod E. Bolsinger; The Grief Tower, by Lauren Wells…to name a few).

Let the vocal dissent become your friend. Let it guide you as you walk with those you lead. An empathetic and listening ear will open up the heart of those who follow you and create trust. Dismissing authentic feelings as “difficult” or “bothersome” will inevitably create anger and hostility, and a lack of trust.

2. Walk your people through the transition.

What does it look like to walk people through transition? Every person has different needs in the transition process. For some, they need to understand the plan and to feel like they can get a handle on the part they play in all of it. Some just need to their feelings to be validated and noticed. Some need to take the transition in bite-size pieces.

First, as best as you can in the chaos of transition, create structure. Brooklyn needed to walk through the transition one step at a time. We have always created routines and rhythms in our home, regardless of where in the world we live. I function at my best in routine and structure, and so does our family. They need to know that there are consistent benchmarks that guide our days/weeks/months. For all of our kids, the daily structure we set in place gave them security, especially for Brooklyn. Taking life day-by-day, rather than event-by-event, gave her breathing room and a sense of normality that her new life in a very complex context did not always give to her.

Sydney has often shared with me that the effort we put into creating “normal” in her daily life helped her to feel safe and regulated. We told our kids that they were to pick an after-school activity to participate in (this was both when we were living in Malawi and before we transitioned to an online school). This was a non-negotiable. It turns out, even though there was some initial push back on this, that having an activity in their lives ended up being a huge part of what helped them settle into our “new normal”.

Second, create an atmosphere for processing. Regular and consistent family meetings that allowed our kids to open up and share, times for listening to music and worshiping together, prayer and laughter,  gave them a firm spiritual foundation in the chaos. We never pressured our children or told them, “You must love Africa.” Or, “You need to get on board and love this.” Giving them the freedom to not love any of it was the catalyst for changing their hearts. Those evening family times saved our family and relieved the pressure to feel feelings that they were not ready to feel.

Third, a very important part of this process is having a sense of humor. Laughter is therapeutic. Transition is so serious and stressful. It zaps us of our energy. Finding times to play and laugh and just pull out of the heaviness of the moment brings rest, hope and cohesiveness.

By the end of March, 2020 Covid-19 had shut everything down, and while Malawi never imposed a formal lockdown, most businesses were closed, and life came to a screeching halt. School migrated to an online format, which brought on a whole new kind of stress, and our routine and structure had to pivot quickly. By July, we were beginning to feel a little stir-crazy. And so, we decided to do “Christmas in July.” We put up our Christmas decorations, baked Christmas cookies, set up our video projector to watch Christmas movies, and even did our traditional “Secret Santa” gift exchange. For a week, we escaped the mundane and the heaviness of the pandemic and played. It was marvelous, and our children will tell you it is one of their favorite memories.

3. Validate. Don’t alienate.

In chaos, none of us are functioning at our best. I will forget side conversations, and sometimes the bigger vision gets buried in all of the chaos of transition. And so, I like to ask questions. I have learned that not everyone likes or appreciates questions. In chaos, I also will reach out for clarity or even request structure to help me along the process. I have also learned that this, too, is not always appreciated. The sad thing is, the more those questions, efforts at clarity-seeking, and requests go ignored, the less I feel compelled to continue following along, and it feels alienating. In seasons of chaos and transition, when we want our people close, our dismissive behaviors actually push our people away.

I noticed this a lot with our kids during transition. I think I’ve made myself clear. I’ve answered the same questions and explained the plan a dozen times, and then someone comes and asks for clarification. I can get frustrated and irritated because in my mind, I’ve already answered those questions. Why do I need to repeat myself one.more.time?

The reality is, when we are in transition, when the chaos is all around us, our brains can’t hold on to all the information, and we struggle to keep the facts in order. Therefore, we continue to ask questions.

It is somewhat like we revert to our preschool selves. Have you ever watched a group of preschoolers play at recess? Their play is often a representation of something they are trying to internalize. For instance, when I taught preschool, there was a little girl in my class who wanted to play “funeral” every single day at recess. She would gather her friends and they would reenact a funeral over and over again. I thought to myself, “why on earth would a bunch of three-year-olds want to play such a dark game of pretend?” Then, when this little girl’s mom came to pick her up from school, she briefly mentioned that they had been to a funeral over the weekend, and it had been a heavy week for their family. This little girl was processing all that she experienced and observed over the course of the previous weekend. She used play to solidify the experience. It was how she made sense of something so enormous. And here is the key…she didn’t just play “funeral” one time. She played “funeral” for a solid week until she understood her experience.

I believe this same concept can be appropriated to life transition. We keep asking questions in order to grasp what is happening. Questions should NEVER be seen as a threat. As the leader/parent, we should really be proactive in repeating the vision, the purpose, the plan, and the daily goals over and over again, no matter how repetitive it may seem. The repetition will bring ownership and peace. When we think we’ve made ourselves clear, we need to repeat all of the above again (and again, and again).

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3 Responses to “how to transition well in a season of chaos #1”

  1. Jeanie Edwards says:

    Such valuable insights, Amy.

  2. Amy says:

    Thank you, Jeanie!

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