Transitions, or moving from one place, person or activity to the next, can be so difficult for young children. During transitions is when we start to see small children have big behaviors, and it’s because moving from one thing to another can be scary and unpredictable. Change feels overwhelming to them, especially when they don’t have any tools to cope.
Imagine that you are in the middle of watching your favorite TV show, enjoying a glass of wine and some chocolate. Your spouse approaches you and asks you to stop what you are doing immediately and take care of the dishes. This is likely how your child feels every time you ask them to stop playing, leave the park, or come to the dinner table. Had you known ahead of time that you would need to take care of the dishes, it might not be quite as difficult to get up and do it. But there’s no avoiding it, transitions are a natural and necessary part of life. The key is equipping our children with the tools and strategies they need in order to make these transitions more predictable, and therefore, more tolerable.
Here are 8 simple ways to help young children prepare and participate in the many transitions they experience throughout the day:
1. Give your child as much information as possible about what is coming next.
This can be as simple as saying, “In a minute, we are going to pick up your toys and say goodbye to Auntie.” Most parents already utilize this technique because it’s so easy, and it curbs 80% of tantrums simply by letting children know that a change is about to happen.
2. Try using a timer or another noise that will signify a time to make a change.
For example, “When you hear the timer beep, it will be time to have dinner.” Timers are an excellent tool for transitions because it takes the pressure off the parent. When the child hears the timer, they know it’s time to make a change without the parent saying a word. Very young children aren’t yet able to understand that the parent controls the timer, so it’s as if the timer itself has asked the child to make the transition. This decreases behaviors significantly, and the child’s increased independence makes them feel in control of the situation.
3. Use a friendly and optimistic tone of voice, and keep the stress under-wrap.
Children need reassurance that the change they will be making will be a positive one. Little ones are very in tuned with our emotions, and they can tell when we are in a hurry or stressed. One of the biggest reasons we don’t prepare our children for transitions is because we are rushed and don’t feel we have the time. But when we don’t take the time to prepare our children, we end up spending more time dealing with their negative behaviors then we would have spent prepping them in the first place.
4. Validate your child’s disappointment, while clearly explaining your expectations.
“You are having so much fun playing with your blocks! Dinner is ready, and when you are done eating, you can play some more.” Sometimes, all children need is to be understood. When we validate their feelings by acknowledging their disappointment, they can internalize those thoughts and use them another time. We essentially give them the words that they wish they could say. Ultimately, we hope that in the future they will be able to articulate their feelings using these words instead of negative behaviors.
5. Let your child pick a special toy that will help them make the transition.
“Would your teddy bear like to come with you to Grandma’s house?” Making the transition from one place to another can be especially difficult if a child also has to leave their parent. Giving your child access to a special toy gives them comfort and reduces their anxiety over going to a new place. We can also help children by giving them a coping strategy when they are feeling sad. For example you can say, “If you are missing mommy, hug your teddy and think ‘Mommy loves me’.”
6. Sing a song to signify a transition.
Children love music and thrive on predictability, so having a special song to sing during a transition can help ease the anxiety. Singing a song is an auditory cue that children are less likely to argue with than an adult directive. Much like the use of timers, a song can bridge the gap between parent and child and make it feel as if the song itself is causing the transition instead of the parent.
7. Give your child a special job to do.
“Can you ring the bell so everyone will know it’s time for lunch?” We know that children love to be given a job and this simple strategy can be extremely effective when asking your child to change activities. When children are an active part of the transition process, it can be easier for them to adjust.
8. Use a visual schedule to show children what will happen during the day.
Using pictures to show children the progression of daily activities is an incredibly useful tool, especially for children with language delays. A visual schedule is another way that children can be more independent in knowing what to do next. Instead of us telling children what to do next, we can tell the child to check the schedule to see what to do next.
Overall, when children know what to expect and have some coping strategies to deal with transitions, we see that they are more eager to cooperate, try new things, and be in control of their emotional responses.