Moving from one activity to another can be difficult, even for adults. It’s especially challenging for kids when the transition is being made from something enjoyable (such as playing or watching TV) to something less desirable (such as leaving a fun place or doing chores).
When my son was a toddler, he had a really hard time being dropped off at and being picked up from preschool. He’d cry or physically resist leaving, refusing to get into his car seat.
“Kids live in the moment — they’re not thinking about how they have to eat dinner or go to bed on time,” explains Dylann Gold, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. “They think you’re ripping them away.”
But preparation can help make transitions easier. Here are some ways to help ease children into the next activity.
Anticipate Meltdowns and Prepare
Dr Gold says parents can look at their kids’ past behaviour for clues about situations that might be tough for a child to transition in or out of — for example, leaving a playground or being dropped off at preschool.
Try to give yourself extra time in these situations if possible. If you can anticipate problems and preempt them by having a system in place, things will probably go more smoothly.
With my son at preschool, I started giving him some time to run around with his friends in an unstructured way or letting him sit down with me to read a book before heading home.
My mother loves to tell a story about how I would make my own sandwiches when I was three years old. Three! I used to think it was a sad story, a commentary on her non-parenting skills, but now that I'm a mum myself, I can see the silver lining. She inadvertently made me a super independent individual.
Tell Them When It’s Time to Go, And Mean It
To help reinforce transitions, use direct verbal cues such as, “We have to leave in five minute,s” or “We have to put our shoes on now.”
Whitney Waugh, a clinical instructor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, tells me that parents shouldn’t just yell this from another room — instead, say it to the children directly, looking them in the eye and even crouching down to meet them at eye level. (This technique was also included in the book Happiest Toddler on the Block, which I found invaluable when my son was a toddler.)
Songs can help, too. Daniel Tiger of the kids’ show Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, sings the lyrics, “It’s almost time to stop, so choose one more thing to do.” It’s catchy and kids remember it.
You can verbally praise kids as they get ready for the next activity (“Wow, you’re doing a great job putting on your clothes!”), or you can try to make the transition itself more fun (perhaps by narrating an activity, such as tooth brushing, “almost like a sportscaster,” says Dr Gold).
Break Down Processes Into Smaller Tasks
A process such as getting ready for school consists of many tasks (eating breakfast, brushing teeth, putting on clothes, tying shoes), which can be overwhelming for little kids.
According to Dr Waugh, instead of giving kids instructions at a “rapid fire” pace, parents should slow it down with a task at a time, letting them process each one. Kids will have an easier time complying with requests and transitioning from one place or activity to another.
Showing kids a list of tasks that need to completed each morning or each evening can be helpful in getting them used to a consistent routine. They can refer to it and know exactly what’s coming up next.
At other times, like when leaving a playground, parents can use a visual aid such an hourglass or stopwatch (or a timer on a smartphone) to reinforce that the activity will be ending soon.
Give Them an Object of Comfort
If a child has a tough time leaving you, a transitional object such as a stuffed animal or favourite toy can be helpful. For younger kids, it allows them to maintain a sense of comfort and consistency.
A friend of mine introduced me to the idea of offering visiting kids who are reluctant to leave a playdate a “prize” — a small toy, like the kind you’d find in lolly bags — to take with them once they have their shoes and jackets on and are ready to go. This trick has prevented or stopped many meltdowns at my house.
Parents can also use reward charts to help reinforce behaviour in a positive way.
Stay Calm During Public Meltdowns
Of course, nearly every parent has been in a public place with a child having a meltdown over having to leave. In those instances, try to remain calm and take a deep breath. “Be the best parent you can be in that moment,” says Dr Waugh.
If you can, try to move the child away from other people. Without giving in, acknowledge the child’s feelings and confidently move them along to the next thing.