How to succeed at helping your child transition from one thing to the next, without it taking forever
You talked with your child about shutting down the tablet at 7:30 pm so you could have some quality time before bed. You gave him several reminders; now it's time to shut it off. He immediately rages, demanding extra time. He screams and stomps like a toddler and yells about how mean you are. So much for quality time... Or it's ten minutes before you have to leave for school. Your child has been up for an hour but isn’t ready to go despite repeated reminders. There is always something she must do "really quickly" instead of say... brushing teeth. This scenario plays out over most days of the week. Your voice is getting tenser, "What's taking so long?!" but you are not getting any closer to leaving the house. Everybody is late.
For most children, switching physically or mentally from one activity to another is not a big deal. They don't spend too much time thinking about it. But from the parents of easily distressed children, I hear a different story. "It's the bane of my existence," shared one mom.
In school, children with transition difficulties struggle to return back to class after recess or finish an art project and move on to another activity. Examples of common challenges at home are waking up on time, without multiple "wake up" visits from the parents, getting ready to leave the house, joining the family for dinner, getting ready for bed, starting on homework, or practicing an instrument. And of course, the mother of all transitions is the transition from screen time. Imposed limits, long talks, multiple reminders and threats of taking an electronic device away often don't seem to be working.
Though it may take time, patience, and creativity, parents can successfully tackle transition challenges. Decide which transition you want to address, observe what is going on in your child's environment, and experiment.
Timed countdown warnings work for some children but may be less effective for anxious children. If your child is triggered by the sound of your voice, many prompts may sound like nagging. Instead try letting alarms say when it's time. Posting schedules around the house, with words and pictures of your child’s routine, is another idea. If you have young kids, create a visual schedule with photos so they can literally see what is coming next and what it looks like. Take a picture of them successfully accomplishing a task with a happy face so that they remember that they can do it.
For a social child who dislikes doing most things alone, the transitions are much better if he is doing it with someone. For example, start helping clean his room with him, and then slowly taper off your support. Eventually, he'll be comfortable to continue doing it on his own.
Problem-solving in the midst of a transition when many things are happening and emotions are high is often fruitless. You will need proactive conversations and planning. It's sometimes hard to know why it's difficult for your child to make a switch. Is it transitioning from one activity to another, like from eating breakfast to getting dressed or from eating breakfast to brushing his teeth? Is there a problem getting dressed, getting distracted, avoidance of school, leaving things undone, or something else? Asking the right questions is the key to uncovering what's getting in his way. Here are just a few ideas on how you can approach your child:
What is he thinking about when he is asked to do something else?
How does he feel when he is asked to do something else?
What are some of the reasons he thinks you have for asking him to do something?
What are the different ways he would like to be asked to do something else? Would it be helpful instead of "ten more minutes" ask him "let's find a stopping place?"
The old “frog in the boiling water” analogy applies to transitions. Put a frog in boiling water and it will jump right out. Put the frog in cold water and gradually add heat and he won't jump. A kindergartener used to explode when she had to get into the car in the morning. So, the parents let her take the phone into the car while helping her with her shoes and coat. As they approach the school, her mother would casually comment, "We're almost at school." A couple of blocks away, she was asked to finish her level. Usually, by the time they arrived at school, the girl was finished with the game, handed over the phone to her mother, and got out of the car with no problems.
Sometimes nothing seems to be working. I see families that run through many "interventions" with no success. This is frustrating for everybody, so it's important to accommodate your child. Reducing demands to what he can handle will open up room for him to grow and develop skills. Some children develop a skill when their brains are ready. For example, you might consider how to rearrange your morning routine to give your child the assistance he needs right now, instead of going through the frustration of him not being able to meet the expectation of dressing himself independently.
About Olga Caffee
Hi, I'm Olga! I’m a mental health counselor associate and a school psychologist. I help children and their families to tackle difficult issues that come up from time to time. I write about topics like parenting, positive discipline, school difficulties, and helping parents to help their children learn the skills to deal with everyday challenges. If transition issues are making your life miserable, feel free to reach out any time.