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You have probably heard about transitions being hard for young children. Or, if you haven’t heard this, you have probably noticed that some of the hardest times with your child are times when you are moving from one activity to another—getting out of the house, going to bed—or when any big changes happen in their lives. Transitions are hard for all children, and they can be especially difficult for some children, depending on their temperament. Children are most comfortable when there are routines, so any time something new or different happens it can be hard to adjust. They also are not able to multi-task, so whatever they are doing at that moment is all they can focus on. When we ask them to stop doing something and move to another activity, it takes them some time to do so.
Children’s lives are full of transitions, from the everyday like cleaning up your toys to have dinner to moving to a new home or getting a new sibling. Even little things that don’t seem significant to us, like getting out of the car, can feel like a transition to a child. So what can you do to make these transitions go more smoothly?
Routines, routines, routines. Children do best when they know what to expect, so routines are very important for them. This can be more difficult when your child is not in school full time, but as much as you can, try to build in routines throughout your day—in the morning, at meal times, at bed time, etc.
Some other basics: try not to have too many transitions at the same time (trying to potty train your child when a new baby has just arrived, for example, does not usually go well); expect that your child will have more difficulty when they are overly tired or hungry; and try to leave as much time as possible for the transition, as rushing will only cause your child to resist even more.
If you have been in playgroups with me, you have seen me give a 5 minute warning, even with young children (I start around 10 months-a year), who don’t know what I mean at first. Giving children warnings can help break their focus and help them get ready to change activities. When you give a child a warning, get down to their level, or at least get them to look you in your eyes, even for just a quick second, so you are sure you have their attention. Try to make your warnings consistent and accurate, meaning that 5 minutes means 5 minutes, not 1 minute or 30 minutes. They make big egg timers that you can use, as it is a concrete visual for kids, or you can use a digital timer if you want or if it helps your child. It can be very helpful to have two ways of giving this information to children: visual and oral.
Make transitions as simple and small as possible, especially for younger toddlers. Instead of, “Go get your coat and shoes and put them on,” say, “Go get your shoes.” Then, “Sit down. Put them on.” And so on. As your child gets older, they will be better able to follow multi-step directions.
Another strategy that can help is—when you can—to be playful with the transition. Make a game out of it, sing a “putting your pajamas on” song, or respond with humor when your child starts to resist. (“Oh look, here are my shoes. I’m going to put them…on my hands!”) Humor and play can be very disarming and can help you avoid a real power struggle.
Children have very little control over their lives, so whenever you can give them a sense of control or agency in a situation, they will be more likely to cooperate. It is important, though, when you are giving your child choices, that they are specific and limited. Don’t ask, “What do you want for breakfast?” Instead, ask, “Do you want eggs or toast for breakfast?” Don’t give them control over things that are too big for them to handle, or that aren’t really a choice. For example, “Are you ready to go?” or “Do you want to go to school?” It is your job to decide that it is time to leave, and that they are going to school. When all else fails, you can ask them something like, “Do you want to walk to the car, or do you want me to carry you?” Meaning, it’s happening no matter what—you just get to choose how you get there.
Whenever you can, you want to avoid a power struggle. Before you begin to ask your child to do (or not to do) something, ask yourself how important it is and what your end goal is. If your child wants to wear leggings, shorts, a pajama shirt, and a baseball hat, that’s fine; your goal is for them to be dressed and get in the car. Make compromises where you can, like letting your child put one more piece on their block tower, or take a transitional object (book, toy, lovey) with them.
Try to recognize when your child has made an attempt to do what you have asked, even if they didn’t quite do it. A little bit of positive attention can go a long way. It is always a good idea to validate your child’s feelings, but this is especially important in times of stress, which transitions can be. This does not mean you try to change what your child is feeling, or that you “give in.” You are just telling your child that you hear what they are saying and see that this is hard for them. Don’t we all want that? When your child says something “mean” or lashes out physically, try to respond to the underlying feeling. “It sounds/looks like you are really mad. It is really hard to leave the playground. You can be mad, but you cannot hit me.”
Your mood and attitude will shape your child’s, so as much as you can, be a calm, confident leader. Keep moving along, telling your child what you want them to do (not what they shouldn’t do), and try not to let their meltdowns get to you.
This does NOT mean, however, that you threaten to leave your child somewhere. Please try not to make empty threats. Because either you won’t actually leave your child, which teaches them not to take you seriously, or you actually leave your child, which is very upsetting for them. Or you may just terrify them that you might leave at any time, so they will cling to you.
Lastly (sorry, this is LONG!), remember that transitions are hard for young children, and have patience with them, and with yourself. Sometimes you will have a disastrous transition where everyone is screaming and crying, but you can always start fresh next time.