My son graduated from preschool last week. I’m not sure how it happened. How did ten months fly by so quickly? One minute he’s reluctantly letting go of my hand and walking toward the door of his classroom with his shiny clear backpack and Lightning McQueen lunchbox. The next thing I know I’m sitting on a bench in the school cafeteria blinking back tears as he presents me with a hug, paper flower, and laminated diploma. I am watching him return to the front of the room as he searches for my face in the crowd. I look at him with his little black gown touching the floor and graduation cap pulled down over his ears. The lump in my throat swells as he beams back at me with me pride.

He gives me the same look of pride when he scores goals in his soccer games or retrieves sunken items from the bottom of my parents’ pool. Or when he pops wheelies on his Spider-Man bike without wrecking. I see that look, too, when he makes his bed and cleans his up his toys before I ask. On the weekends, I get to see this look as he wakes me up to show me that he’s set out the coffee and filters on the counter for me.

It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that we were picking out his first day of school outfit – a “later gator” t-shirt and khaki shorts. We talked about preschool and all the friends he would make and things he would learn. His excitement helped to ease my anxiety. I was scared to send my baby off to school. How would he do in his new environment? How would he adapt to his teachers and classmates?

As the days went by, we settled into our routine and he began to thrive. He started the school year knowing only a few number and colors. Now he can write his letters, spell both our names, tell you his iPad passcode (super important!) and sound out simple words. In addition to his colors, numbers and letters, he can now add patterns, logic and reasoning skills to his tiny resume. He’s also a full two inches taller than he was last August. The rate in which children learn, change, and grow is astounding.

Our year, however, wasn’t without its struggles. While my child loved school – learning, making friends, playing at stations, doing art projects, and singing songs – he absolutely did not like getting out of bed at 5:45am to catch the bus. No matter how early his bedtime the night before, most of our mornings included tears, sometimes from both of us. Excuses such as belly aches, tight socks, scratchy tags, throbbing toes, and mismatched clothes often came up. Some mornings, to avoid leaving, he would hide behind the chair in his room or wrap himself up like a burrito in his bed sheets. Neither barking orders, playful banter, or cracking jokes seemed to have a positive impact on his resistant behavior.

Over the last 10 months, I realized that he more aggravated and upset I got with him, the less likely he was to comply with my requests. Instead of trying to “make him mind” or “talk at” him, I learned to get down in the floor with him, listen to what he was saying and do my best to give him empathy. Sometimes he would even ask for space so he could calm himself down. Keeping my own frustrations in check and giving him empathy actually increased his independence and willingness to get up and get ready in the mornings. I didn’t need to “fix” his problem. As it turned out, he just wanted his little 5-year-old perspective and concerns to be taken seriously.  He needed to be heard and have his feelings validated.

When I am upset, I often feel this way too. I don’t like being told what to do. Sometimes I just need someone to listen and acknowledge my struggle, not fix my problem. When I feel supported and understood, my confidence increases, my thoughts become more positive and the possibility of moving forward is less overwhelming. Only then am I willing to accept help.

Throughout my life I have found that change, milestones, and endings can be hard. Moments that should be anticipated and celebrated are often overshadowed by memories of the past or worries about the future. When this happens, my anxiety and emotions take over and I forget to be present and appreciative of what’s happening right in front of me.

This time of year, many of us will sit through graduations and reflect on how much our children have grown, the milestones they’ve reached and the obstacles they’ve overcome. For me, watching my child stand proudly with his diploma was also an opportunity for self-reflection. As I sat there with tears rolling down my face, I realized that instead of dwelling on the painful moments of the past, or being fearful of the in the future, I could simply be present, share in his joy, and smile.

Erin Stroup has been the Development Director at KPCC Counseling since 2014. She’s the author of the First World Problems blog and a Families Motivating Recovery support group leader.