5 Ways to Help Children Through Life's Transitions

“…Leaving the park is always so difficult.  I don’t understand why Ava continually puts up a fight.  Whenever I say it’s time to go, she throws the biggest fit and refuses to listen.  Sometimes if we’re on a tight schedule I end up having to pick her up, kicking and screaming, to get her in the car.  What do I do?”

Do you have a child that has difficulty leaving places like the park or library?

While each child is unique, many times these behaviors occur as a result of struggles with transitions.

Little boy acts up by sticking his tongue out at his parent.

Transitions and routines create predictability in your child’s day.  This helps give your child a sense of security and emotional stability, knowing what to expect.  When a situation occurs where the play is ended abruptly, your child may negatively react to that unpredictability. Depending on your child's temperament, transitions between activities may be easy or more difficult.  Going from play to lunch, lunch to the store, the store to home...and especially transitioning to bed time, can be challenging. 

Routines (like bedtime routines) can help make transitions easier. 

What are signs that your child is having difficulty with transitions?

  • Child cries when toys are taken away

  • Leaving the park often results in a tantrum or meltdown

  • Child fixates on an object or thing from the previous outing (like a book left at the library, or a toy at daycare)

  • Resistance to simple tasks like putting shoes on, or putting toys away. 

What can you do to help?

  • Keep a Consistent Routine:  Children need predictability.  They like to be able to anticipate what is coming next.  The unknown can be scary for some children.  While each day does not need to be scripted down to the very minute- a general flow for the day is advised.  This is easy to do if you have children in school.  From the time the child wakes up, keep each day as consistent as possible.  First, you make your bed.  Then go eat breakfast.  Next you put on your school clothes and brush your teeth…etc.  This way the child can anticipate what’s next.  Also, the going to bed “winding down” time needs to be the same.  Take a bath, read a book, then off to bed. 

  • Provide Transition Prompts: Children who struggle with transitions have a difficult time stopping a task abruptly.  Instead, these are the children that need the “five minute warning” that the activity is coming to an end.  Maybe your child is too young to understand the concept of time, but the verbal cue lets them know that the end is coming.  It allows them the opportunity to finish building their tower, or go down the slide one more time, and allows them to process the transition.  Other transition prompts can be:

    • “When you finish reading that book, it will be time for bed…”

    • “Two more minutes to play in the bathtub, then it will be time to get out…”

    • “After you put your shoes on, it will be time to get in the car…”

  • Prepare Them for Something New: Is this the child’s first time to the doctor? Are they going to kindergarten or preschool for the first time? Is a babysitter coming over so you can have some adult time? These are all situations that children who struggle with transitions will need to know about ahead of time.  Also, it’s important to prepare these children for how you want them to behave in a particular environment.  If you are walking into the Post Office or Library- these children need the verbal prompting “Ok, we are about to walk into a building.  This building requires us to use quiet voices.  Can you show me quiet voices?”  By setting the expectation ahead of time for behavior a child can respond to your request without the confusion of what’s expected. 

  • Use a Transitional Object: Now a days many families are divorced or blended and consistency is hard.  What Mom does at her house is different than what Dad does.  While getting the two houses to conform to a familiar schedule can be challenging, a transitional object can help a child move from home to home, or throughout their day.  A transitional object does not need to be a large stuff animal.  It can be small- something that fits in their pocket or backpack.  Maybe it’s a favorite toy, or stuff animal they like to sleep with at night.  For one child I worked with, a self-drawn picture of his family folded up and kept in his pocket was enough of a reminder he was safe and that his family was returning.  In a school setting it is important to speak with the Teacher or Staff about what kind of object your child can use- but many times just knowing their special object is in their backpack waiting for them at the end of the day is reassuring enough.

Using these 5 techniques can greatly decrease your child’s anxiety with transitions, and allow a smoother day over all.  By simply adding verbal cues or prompts, your child will learn what to expect and will be able to adjust themselves to the next activity. 

If you are having trouble with a child struggling with transitions, therapy can help. Our Burbank therapists specialize in working with families and children, and are excited to help you apply these tools in your own life. 

Photo by Hunter Johnson on Unsplash