5 Ways to Help Kids Deal with Transitions
Many children (and adults) have difficulty making transitions. A seemingly calm child can go into a total meltdown when you tell her she has to stop playing and take a bath. Or it might occur if the schedule changes without warning. Some kids get very cranky everyday day during natural transition times such as getting ready for school and getting out the door in the morning, or during the dinner hour after you come home from school and work.
For some of these kids, anxiety is the culprit. These are the kids that want to know everything that's going to happen ahead of time, and who really need routine and scheduling. Other kids are more oppositional and simply don't like to be told what to do. Two very different causes, but the outcome can often look the same when it comes to a transition. Here are some things you can do to minimize the reactivity.
#1 Give warning for transitions.
It’s good to get away from telling kids to do something "right now!" with no warning. Consider how you respond to that yourself. If you’re like me, you like to know ahead what you're going to have to do so you can decide for yourself how to work that into your schedule or time. You want a little space and time to change directions. You need time to disengage from one thing and start another.
As parents, it's easy to get in the habit of telling children what to do without giving them that little space to make a transition. There are schedules, things happen fast, and we need their cooperation to make it all work. So very true! The problem is you can end up sounding like a Colonel or a Czar hurling directives and commands without any recognition that your children feel powerless or have their own feelings about things. From their perspective, its bad enough that they don't have much authority, but it can feel like an insult when commands are given so often and with no transition time. To them, it signals that you really don’t understand how they feel.
When you have the time, a good technique is to provide warning when a transition is going to occur. If you're child is playing and engrossed in what he's doing and it's time to brush teeth and get a bath, give a 15 minute warning that the transition is going to take place. Let him know that in 15 minutes he will need to stop playing and go brush his teeth. If he needs to also pick up toys, then start earlier so that he will be picking up toys in 15 minutes and brushing teeth in 25 minutes. Then give a second warning 10 minutes before the transition and then another one in 2 minutes before. When the time is up, it’s go time!
You can add to this technique by purchasing a kitchen timer which is a stand alone clock type of thingie that you can set for however much time you want, and it ticks as the time goes. When the time is up, a bell sounds. Some kids feel a greater sense of control if they are waiting on the kitchen timer to tell them when the time is up as opposed to their parent’s voice delivering that message. This is especially true with kids that are oppositional. With a timer, they can check it as often as they like and gauge for themselves how much time is left. If your child needs a lot of transition time, then start with longer amounts and shorten as they become more flexible over time.
#2 Get an agreement ahead of time about the reaction.
Another really important part of this process is to get your child’s agreement as to how he is going to behave when the time is up. When you give the first warning, go over with him how you expect him to act and what you expect him to do when the time is up.
"When I let you know the time is up, I want your promise that you are going to get up and brush your teeth without fussing, getting mad, or objecting. We agree?"
Spell it out in detail and get his agreement before hand.
What you are doing is giving him time to change lanes, and priming him for how he will handle it. This feeds in to his need for planning ahead or having control. He knows exactly what’s going to happen, when it will happen, and what he’s supposed to do. You are more likely to get his complete cooperation this way. For the child that doesn’t like to be told what to do, it avoids that knee-jerk reaction when you tell him he needs to do something. It’s already been negotiated and the plan is set.
If this doesn't work right away, keep at it until it becomes a habit and routine. There will of course be times when you don't have the luxury of using this type of warning system, and you can talk with your kids about that.
"I can warn you most of the time when there's going to be a change, but sometimes that's not possible because things happen fast and have to be done right away. That's when I need your cooperation. I want your promise that you will do what I ask when there isn't time to give you a warning first."
Then you can give examples, or you can draw their attention to examples when the experiences arise.
#3 Stick to daily routines.
Kids who have difficulty with transitions, or who tend to be anxious, like to know ahead of time what's going to happen. Routines are very important for them, and sticking to a general daily routine will cut down on some of the reactivity to change. Routines should be set up for:
- After school or after work
- After dinner activities including bath, relax time, homework ( if not already done)
A bedtime routine is exceptionally helpful and should include the same bedtime each night without deviation. You may be more flexible on weekends, but I wouldn't stray too far from the normal routine. You can read the blog on Bedtime Strategies for more specific ideas about how to do this.
Daily structure works both for kids who are prone to anxiety and kids that are oppositional. With the oppositional kids, you need to get their agreement ahead of time so that they feel some control over their routine. This doesn’t mean they have the say so about what is to be done, but involving them in the process of establishing the routine will yield greater cooperation.
#4 Plan ahead.
Life throws curves and sometimes it is impossible to plan ahead, but as much as possible, good planning should be employed so that your kids know what and when things are going to happen. Planning allows you to more effectively use the techniques of giving warning for change and transition time. It also cuts down on stress overall.
This doesn't mean that you and the kids shouldn't be spontaneous sometimes. Not at all. It just means that for the regular events of the day, you should plan ahead and be ready for whatever's on the schedule. This is ultra true for adults too. If you have the kind of temperament that leans toward organizing and planning, this won't be hard, but if you have a temperament that operates more as "fly by the seat of your pants," you may find this more difficult. If your temperament doesn't match that of your child's, and especially if yours is the latter type and your child's is the planning, organizer type, then your child may get frustrated regularly by your approach to things.
If you've ever worked in an office with a leader who is very laid back and operates moment to moment (or fly by the seat of your pants), and the employees being managed by him or her are more organized planners, you will see a great deal of frustration on the part of the employees often resulting in low morale. This same thing can happen when a parent who is in the authority position does not have the same need for organization and planning that the child has.
Just be cognizant of those differences in temperament so that you can recognize and work with them.
#5 Encourage obsessive-compulsive play.
This may sound strange, but in actuality, kids between the ages of 6 and 10 use obsessive-compulsiveness as a natural defense mechanism, and it is all right. I'm not talking about OCD behaviors that are out of the norm such as extensive hand washing or odd rituals that don't make sense. I'm referring to repetitive play that makes use obsessive-compulsive trends. An example would be taking small items like hot wheel cars and lining them up, dividing them by favorites or by color, or racing them against each other to rank them. You might see the same things with dolls, action figures, baseball cards, or any other item that can be grouped or collected. This type of play is particularly appealing to kids who tend to be more anxious. The act of organizing or ranking items is soothing. It's the similar to the adult activity of organizing everything in a closet, or cleaning before you do something stressful. These activities soothe and calm.
If you have a particularly anxious child or one who balks at change and transition, encourage this type of play. Let them collect favorite toys or items and get down on the floor with them and encourage activity that consists of organizing, ranking, or laying out the items in ways that seem exciting to them. You can then slowly introduce a little fantasy into the play by making up pretend stories, or setting up competitions between figures or items. The more fantasy that is used, the calmer your child will become and the easier they will deal with change. For more information on how this works, read Play Techniques with Elementary School Children.
What if none of that works and my child has a meltdown anyway?
If that’s the case, then it is best to allow them to express their feelings verbally as best they can, even if their feelings don’t make much sense. When kids get overwhelmed enough to erupt or cry extensively, then the goal is to help them get their emotional equilibrium back before you try to reason with them. That means listening and encouraging them to say how they feel without trying to change their minds. You want them to feel understood and reconnect to you emotionally. Then and only then can you move forward to solve the problem.
We don’t always have time to do that and sometimes this means just dealing with the meltdown and moving forward anyway, but if at all possible, use the above process and it will help to gain the cooperation you need.
A final note
It may feel like you are catering to your child’s inability to handle and embrace change by adopting any of these strategies. On the contrary, when you allow children to learn how to deal with transition problems, they will be able to incorporate more flexibility as they grow up. First help them learn to feel secure when change is happening. Eventually, it won’t be so difficult.
Now for Your Input
There you have it. As always, I love to hear from parents about things they have figured out or ideas they have related to our discussions. If you have another technique you use that works with transitions, please share!