A Critique of the Transition Theories

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A Critique of the Transition Theories


This paper is designed to provide a critique of the transition theories that were discussed in class. The first half of this paper will outline the transition theories and provide a critique of the strengths, benefits, and limitations of each critique, giving critical thought to each one. The second half of the paper will focus more intently on the Hays and Hobson model because it is applicable to my current and future work in student affairs and, in particular, academic advising.

William Bridges, “Transitions”, 1980

William Bridges book, “Transitions”, is a thorough account of life’s transitions from the author’s point of view. Bridges claims that a transition occurs in three stages: ending, neutral zone, and then beginning. This theory is innovative in that it begins the transition with an ending, instead of a beginning, with the claim that every transition that an individual goes through in life begins with an ending of some kind. There are four endings that Bridges describes: disengagement, which is the separation from a familiar place in a social order; disidentification, which is a loss of a role; disenchantment, which is the discovery that one’s world is no longer real and disorientation, which is a loss of interest, motivation, and direction.

The strengths of this theory are many; for one, this theory has a self-help nature to it, meaning that the everyday person with little psychological background can benefit from reading this book. With the proper motivation, an individual can gain an understanding of their transition period without the help of a helping professional. Bridges provides many self-help strategies for people who are going through a transition to apply to their lives, although not many self-help techniques for the neutral zone are given, as explained below.

Also, the neutral zone is a unique concept in the transition models presented in this paper. The neutral zone is a time of non-movement, one where the individual spends time just “being” and not necessarily making large changes in their life. I find this to be a strength because it gives the individual who is going through the transition permission to slow down and not make a rash, hasty decision about what to do next or to start on a path that they are not sure about going down.

Another strength that I found in Bridges’ theory is that it is very optimistic in nature. Bridges’ book gives hope that the transition is only temporary; one will come out of it a better person and have that opportunity for a new beginning. The basic premise of this book is that, yes, you will make it through this transition and will be presented with many more in your lifetime; however, you will come out of it a better person.

The only limitation that I find fault within this theory is the few strategies that are given to get through the neutral zone period. Applying this model to a situation of transition, I think of this time period as one where depression would most likely set in because of the non-movement and isolation that is likely to be present. I think that, during this time period in particular, there needs to be more emphasis on building a relationship with a mental health professional because of this risk.

Bridges’ model really applies best to inner changes, in my opinion, because of the model’s abstract nature and the emphasis on the neutral zone. However, I feel that this would also apply to mid-life events and identity crises also.

Nancy Schlossberg, the “new” and “old” model

Nancy Schlossberg’s models involve two parts: how the transition began and the potential resources the individual has (assets/liabilities) to deal with the transition. In these models, the transition begins with the event or non-event that results in change. The type of situation, the context in which the transition is occurring, and the impact of the transition on that individual’s life influence the impact of the transition on one’s life. From there, in her new model, Schlossberg provides us with the “4S” System, which allows for a look as to how the individual is going to deal with that transition based on their assets and liabilities.

The four S’s are Situation, Support, Strategies, and the Self. The Situation looks at the trigger of the transition, timing, control over the transition, role change, duration of the transition, previous experiences with like transitions, concurrent stress during the transition, and their personal assessment of the transition. The Support involves looking at what she calls the convoy, which is a model for looking at who in the individuals’ life will provide the most social support during the transition. The Strategies are what the individual is going to do to cope with the situation – how are they going to control the stress? Finally, the Self looks at personal and demographic characteristics of the individual and the psychological resources that the individual has and takes them into account when looking at the transition.

The main strength of this model is that it is so easy to follow and relate to the counseling process. The 4S System allows for the helping professional to look at the transitions being dealt with and assesses the degree of support an individual will need if they are to make it through the transition successfully. What is neat about this model is that a helping professional and their client(s) can actually plan ahead by looking at a transition that a client would like to go through and assess whether or not now is a good time for them to make that transition.

The second strength of these models is that it looks at an important concept in adult development – on time and off time events. An 80-year old woman and a 25-year old woman experiencing the death of her husband will experience this transition in a very different matter. Applying this model to the situation, we can see that there are very few support groups for widows in their 20’s and that the timing of the death is off-time and will cause a different degree of mental anguish than for a woman in her 80’s.

The limitation I see in the newer theory/model is the post-transition environment that is neglected in the newer model. Although this is mentioned in Schlossberg’s theory, there is little talk or advice given as to what happens or should happen when the transition is completed. The older model, however, addresses this in much more detail and takes into account the internal supports, institutional supports, and the physical setting that is present after the transition. What does an individual do after the “storm” has gone? Is there anything that can bring closure to the events that have preceded the storm? These questions remain unanswered.

The limitation in the older theory/model is the impracticality of it in a counseling role. The older model is very hard to follow and is not presented in a matter that can be used feasibly to assess a client and their situation with any degree of accuracy or thoroughness.

I find this theory to be most relevant when making midlife transitions or planning for a big role change in your life, such as becoming a parent, going back to school, or switching careers. I feel that this model is most applicable to these transitions because sometimes, these role changes can be controlled and predicted; thus, they can be assessed without a great degree of difficulty.

Oconner and Wolfe “Stages of Transition”, 1997

O’Connor and Wolfe’s stages of transition involves five stages that are progressed through during the transition process. These five stages are: Stability, Rising Discontent, Crisis, Redirection, and Restabilization. The first stage, Stability, is one where the roles are set and people are generally satisfied. Then, there comes Rising Discontent, where the awareness is present that one can no longer live like they have been and there begins a questioning of their core beliefs and assumptions. The climax of the model is the Crisis, yet, the authors caution that the Crisis can have different degrees of consciousness and doesn’t have to arise from an incident, but may rise from resisting or denying the Rising Discontent that causes stress, which in turn manifests the Crises. After the Crisis period, there is a Redirection stage, where more questioning occurs and the person in this transition can either grow from what they have experienced or decide to slump back into old behaviors. Finally, Restabilization occurs and life begins to be streamlined again, usually integrating the new experiences into their life.

The biggest strength of this model is how cut and dry the transition process is made to sound. This makes for very easy use in a helping setting. However, its biggest strength can also be its biggest downfall – the cut and dry process doesn’t allow for specific actions that can be done on the part of either the counselor or the client. Also, what happens when there is more than one crises occurring at the same time? Unlike Schlossberg’s model, the incorporation of more than one transition at any given time is not possible, or at least is not indicated as possible in the model. Another aspect of this theory is stage three – the word “Crisis” brings up a very sudden, angry connotation and I feel that this stage should be labeled differently. There doesn’t have to be a crisis, in this sense, in a transition and although the authors do not mean “crisis” in that sense, it should be labeled in such a matter that their meaning is better projected.

This model is near perfect, I think, for an affair during a marriage. I think that this model shows very clearly how couples get trapped in a stability and rising discontent phase and what can happen when there is a communication breakdown and emotional feelings and insecurities are brought elsewhere. This model also serves as a good path for midlife career transitions, where someone is “stuck” in making that final step towards redirecting their careers.

Hays and Hobson – The “Sperm” Model – it’s theory and applicability to academic advising

Hays and Hobson’s “sperm” model is shown as very fluid process with a variety of stages and is the model that I would use for transitions in my own career. First, there is the stage of elation or despair, depending on the situation at hand, that some transitions may be very good and beneficial for the individual’s life, while others cause problems and difficulty. Regardless, the next period is one of immobilization, which this is a period of shock about going through the transition. Then, there is a period of self-doubt. The individual begins to ask themselves the questions “Can I get through this?” or “Am I really ready to be (new role) at this point in my life?” Finally, the individual hits the rock bottom, full of doubt, questions, and despair about the transition. After rock bottom, however, the individual goes through a period of letting go, where they begin to lose the despair they held about the transition and develop a more positive outlook. This is the point where the individual says to them “Okay, I am going to give this new (role, job, etc.) a try”. Then, they test this out. If this works, they move on to the next stage, and that is the search for meaning, “What did this transition mean to them personally? How has this transition changed their current outlook and/or their future plans?” Finally, the individual moves into the stage of internalization, one where they begin to fit all the pieces together and evaluates the reasons the transition occurred in their life in the first place.

The strength of this transition is that it really takes into account the hesitancy of moving into the new transition, no matter what that transition may be. This model accounts for that period by the three stages of letting go, testing out, and searching for meaning. Also, we see that it is during these crucial periods where the most counseling would take place. Encouragement, empathy, goal-setting and assisting with problem solving are all key things a counselor can do during these stages to assist the client complete the transition successfully.

The limitation of this model is, similar to the Oconnor and Wolfe model, is the labeling that is associated with each of the different stages. The “shock” and “hitting bottom” really portrays an intense emotional experience, yet the actual experience in these stages does not have to be this intense. The experience may be some sort of inner change that results in a smaller-scale transition of this same sort, allowing for a straighter curve.

The populations that this model serves are those individuals transitioning into a role change or out of a traumatic experience. In the case of trauma, this model really hits it on the head; even the labels of “immobilization” (the shock period) and the “self-doubt” (hitting bottom) really fit with most experiences of trauma. In the case of role change, it reminds the counselor and the client going through the transition that although a role change (promotion, being a parent, becoming a student) may be a positive experience at the outset, there is bound to be these stages where there is the self-doubt and questioning about this new role.

In my area of expertise, this model serves as a perfect fit. Please note that what I am going to describe below is the average, 18-year old student who comes from a middle-class family and is living on campus. Although this is still the majority of students, this number is slowly disappearing as more students are choosing to commute to campus and many students are putting college off until a later time or returning as adults. As such, I am using this model to apply to a certain kind of student, but not all. This is an “in general” case with traditional college students.

When a student makes the transition from high school to college, there is this period of elation – the experience of college is very new and marks a larger transition of becoming an adult. In an advising situation, the students who are coming to advising during this stage are excited about being students. They are motivated and cannot wait to plan out what they are going to do with their life. In a sense, there is a perception that there are such a wide variety of choices and this is exciting for most students.

In addition to the long list of academic choices, this elation period also concerns itself with all the campus life activities that are available to participate in. What will they choose first? The list is long and allows for much experimentation on the student’s behalf. At the same time, just the mere fact that they are away from their parents and on their own for the first time elevates their elation further.

During the mid-term process (either mid-semester or mid-year), the time of self-doubt begins to set in. The adviser sees this coming, especially when they look at the student’s course load and social life and realize that they have too much on their plate. What happens is that the student becomes overwhelmed with feelings of disequalibrium; they are not quite set in their ways on campus and feel a sense of ambiguousness that can only be experienced in higher education; in high school, these students were told what to do and what courses to take. In college, the options are endless and the student must decide for themselves the activities they pursue and the academic concentration that they will complete. This ambiguity, on top of feeling overwhelmed with schoolwork and social life, is what sets this self-doubt process in motion.

The bottoming out period, or the “breaking point”, is when the homesickness begins to wash over the student. This homesickness does not necessarily have to include the family; it can be their friends or the area that they lived before they entered college that they miss so much. This is when the student begins to feel the most despair and longing and they begin to question why they made the transition to college in the first place. Often times, this is when students begin to ask themselves the popular, first-year student question: “Should I have stayed at home and worked first?”

The bottoming out period is the most crucial advising time for these students. Without guidance, this is the time period when a student is most likely to give up and go home, foregoing their chances at higher education. The best thing for an advisor to do during this time period is to spend time listening intently to the student and reflecting back their feelings. Empathy is also crucial, not only on behalf of the advisor but also on the behalf of other students. Getting involved in a mentoring or support group is ideal for these students so they are not alone. In some way, the student needs to feel as if the experiences they are going through transitioning into college are not unusual and that, despite the difficulty of the first-year transition, they will make it through college successfully.

After the semester or year is over and the student gets a break, they usually go home and see their family. They begin to let go of the despair that they held on to during their first year of college. Family and friends begin to reassure them; normalizing their transition process and encouraging them that college is indeed the place they want to be. During this time period, the student will sometimes get a job or hang out with their old friends, testing out the waters of what life is like back home. In most cases, the student enjoys their time at home but realizes the joys of being a student and actually wants to go back. The student goes back to college feeling refreshed and with a new perspective on being a student. Also, the stress of being new is no longer there and they can feel more comfortable.

Academic advising during the letting go and testing out period is very active; here, goal setting and planning takes place. The student will usually do many things during this time period, such as solidifying with a student group or campus activity, exploring careers, and picking a major course of study. The advisors role during this period is to facilitate the planning process, teaching the student how to set goals and stay motivated while achieving them.

Around the junior or early part of senior years, the student begins to find meaning in their transition. They have found others who have experienced the same transition and realize that what they experienced is normal. Usually, they have started following their course of action and have decided firmly on a major course of study. Also, during this time period, there is a growing sense of independence on the part of the student because they have been living independently and have made big decisions that have affected their lives.

Finally, the student integrates this experience into his or her own lives. Here, the advisor does not have a clear role because the experience needs to be integrated into their lives at their own pace. However, once integrated, the student realizes that the transition will help them deal with other areas of their life, especially the role changes of getting married, becoming a parent, and getting a job after college. Some students will even go as far as being a mentor to first-year students because they feel they have great know-how about the experience and wish to share it with others.

In summary, the transition theories that have been offered to this class all have merit and are applicable in their own right to certain situations. Although each has its limitations, the theories provide a solid framework for counselors and other helping professionals to use in the helping process for those who are going through difficult times in their lives and need someone to be with them for guidance and to lend an ear.


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