Trouble with Transitions

Trouble with Transitions: PlayDrMom offers some tips on helping kidsFor some kids getting them to switch activities or leave for another location is like trying to move a brick wall.  Maybe the child has always had difficulty with transitioning … or maybe it’s a new concern.  Having trouble with transitions can occur at any age during childhood; it may simply be a phase that the child is going through or it can be a more chronic problem that has more to do with the child’s personality.  Some children people are just more sensitive to change, maybe a bit more shy or introverted, or just take a bit more time to “warm up” to new situations.

No matter what the reason(s), here are some ways to help kids deal with transitions …

First, try to figure out WHY it is happening.  

  • Think about when the behaviors/resistance started happening.  Has the child always (since infancy) had difficulty with change … or maybe the behaviors/resistance started after a “major” life change (divorce, death, move, new sibling).
  • Is the resistance situation specific? Could it have to do with the fact that maybe the child doesn’t feel safe or comfortable in a certain location, doing a certain activity, or with certain people?  Or maybe it’s something that they really don’t like or enjoy doing.  Help the child problem solve to figure out what specifically the fear is about.
  • Is your child afraid of the unknown?  Many times children can be hesitant to go into a new situation.  Preparing them ahead of time of what to expect can be very helpful in these cases.  You can talk about it, read books on the place and/or activity, and even research it online!
  • Does your child have difficulty leaving you?  Sometimes trouble with transitions has more to do with separation anxiety than switching tasks.  Understanding the root of the problem can help with developing solutions.
  • Is it that your child doesn’t want to stop what they are currently doing and change gears?  Many kids have difficulty pausing or ending their current activity to go onto the next thing.  Making sure to consistently give them warnings (“In 5 minutes we will be leaving the playground.”) and following through with the transition.  (otherwise they get in the habit of knowing you don’t really mean it OR being reinforced to throw a fit and then they get to stay longer).

transitions can be difficult for kids

Other helpful tips:

  • Celebrate successes!  Make sure you positively reinforce your child anytime he or she transitions successfully. Thanking them regularly for being ready on time can be a great way in helping decrease battles during transitions.  More ideas on how to reinforce positive behavior.
  • For some kids that have a more chronic problem with transitions, increasing daily and weekly structure can help decrease anxiety.  When kids know that there will be a certain morning routine, followed by certain activities during the day (“On Monday we go to dance, Tuesday you have school, Wednesday we go to the library, …)”  .. and so on it will be much easier for them to get used to the changes during the day.  When changes become routine, transitions become easier and expected. 
  • Help your children learn more about the construct of time.  For many young children the idea of “5 minutes”, “an hour”, “tomorrow”, or “next week” means absolutely nothing.  Read books, play games, do activities related to learning time.  You can also give them examples of what you mean … “as long as a Dora show” or “in two sleeps” are very commonly used.  If they understand more what time means it will be less confusing for them, “when we have to go in 10 minutes!”
  • Listen to your child about their worries.  Not in the moment of trying to get them out the door … but later when things have calmed down.  Really listen to what they have to say.  Ask them, “What’s the worse that could happen?” and then help them learn to figure out what could make the situation better.
  • Know when to give warnings for your individual child.  Some kids do much better if they know what’s ahead.  In these cases giving them their own calendar with their own schedule of events can be very helpful.  The calendar could be for a day, week, or a month at a time and reviewed on a regular basis.  For other kids having too much laid out ahead of time only increases their anxiety.  For these children giving much shorter time periods of warning can be best.  Figuring out what works best for YOUR child is key.
  • Instead of a battle, make it a challenge.  If you phrase the transition into a challenge instead a demand, kids will be far more likely to follow through.  I frequently use the, “Let’s see who can get into the car before I can!” game.  A little fun always help!
  • Make sure to allow for the extra time.  It sounds simple, but it’s sometimes forgotten. If you know that you have a child that has difficulty with changing gears, plan for extra time for transitions.  Getting clothes laid out, bags packed or coats ready beforehand can help aid in the transition.  Allowing the extra time helps to keep YOU more sane and calm.  When you are feeling rushed it can only exacerbate the problem. (that being said … I know that in some instances NO amount of planning or extra time can help get a kid moving!)
  • For kids that have a hard time feeling comfortable in new situations, make sure to get there a bit early.  This way they have time to get used the the environment before things get started.  For instance if your child can come to a party or playdate location early they may be more comfortable by the time the rest of the kids come.  Increasing the times a child has positive experiences in new environments can help them feel more comfortable over time.
  • Give them some opportunity to be in control of a transition.  In our busy lives there are not a lot of chances we can give children to be in control of when we have to leave or where we have to go … but if you have a free day give your children opportunity (or a few choices) on where they would like to go and how long they would like to stay there.  In our role as the adult in our child’s life we have to be in control of most of these transitions.  (Just think … or remember … how annoying that would be to always have someone else telling you what you needed to be doing and when!)  Letting them have the reins now and then gives them some practice and always them to be in control for once.
  • Have your child bring a transitional object.  This can be anything that will help them feel more secure with the change.  It could be a favorite lovey (doll or stuffed animal) or as simple as a little rock from their yard to keep in a pocket.  It could also be an item from a parent (like a piece of costume jewelry or handkerchief).
  • Create a novel activity for the transition.  Giving a child a special task while they are transitioning can make it fun and take their mind off of the battle.  It can be as simple as helping carrying a bag or opening the doors.  This could also be a certain activity or even a certain toy that they can ONLY have during transition.  One thing that really worked with my own son was having a Junior Suduko game that he could only play in the car.  This made getting into the car much easier because he was so excited to play the game.
  • Use some relaxation techniques.  If the child is getting really upset, it might be time to stop and take some deep breaths together.  Or count to 10.  Or think about a place you like to relax.
  • Finally, make sure you are considering how your own fear and/or anxiety may be playing into the issue.  Children FEED off their parents feelings.  If the child senses you are upset or worried about the transition it may become amplified within them.  Making sure you are mindful about your own feelings and addressing them can also be essential in helping your child make smooth transitions.

I’d love to hear other ways that you’ve helped your children, students, or clients transition.  Please leave them as a comment below!

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Laura Hutchison

Laura Hutchison (aka PlayDrMom) is a chubby kid turned competitive figure skater tween turned high school pom pon girl turned MSU Spartan turned grad student turned Mrs. HutcH turned Dr. turned Mom. She adores living in the Mitten, is addicted to Diet Coke, and firmly believes that ice cream is a main food group.

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  1. Terri Colberg

    [this is about transitioning from house to car, and child feeding on parents emotions]Our granddaughter Arabella, three years old, came to visit with family this spring and while she was visiting with her 1 1/2 year old cousin and family she became very tense about some pine tree creatures (seeds) in the driveway. She thought they were worms or something and her daddy held her and tried to show her they were not alive and were harmless, and her mother tried to explain, as did we all standing outside and she just became stiff and shuddered with fear and had to be taken into the house.
    The front door and driveway were the point of entering and leaving the house, so Arabella was going to be confronted with these little creatures each time she came or left. On one trip out to visit family I saw her holding back, not wanting to go out the door, not even wanting to be carried and she ran back into the house very upset. This upset me and I went back in with her while her mommy was getting little brother into the car with belongings. I decided that she needed to be in the car and leaving quickly, so we needed to get out fast, and we could conquer these LITTLE creatures together! I grabbed her hand and in a loud voice said– “Come on Arabella, we are going out AND we are going to STOMP on these little guys and SMASH them– here we go!…” and on and on– all the way to the car we made a big impression as we passed over the pine tree seed things!!! IT WAS AWSOME. Never was there another thought of those little things again as she played inside and outside that week! But before conquering the little creatures, I could see she was using the situation to take control of everyone and their emotions, and it bothered me because I felt helpless as nothing we said helped her. This week I got a text from my daughter and she said Arabella was playing tea party and the tea pot had a bug in it. [before… when accosted by a little varmint she would become very worried, running from the room, and put on a big crying act] But this time she turned to her mommy and said- “There’s a bug in the tea pot– we need to find a new tea pot mommy!” My daughter said –I guess she is over that problem. ~Thank God!

  2. Laura

    Thanks so much for sharing, Terri! I love your solution for your granddaughter!

  3. The Monko

    These are very helpful tips. I can cope with the difficult transitions at nursery drop off because it is obvious what the concerns are, but the ones that drive me nuts are when he has told me he wants to go to a friends house, but then dawdles and delays and throws a tantrum about leaving the house .. to go and do what he wants to do!!! What is that about!!! DRIVES ME INSANE! so I will be rereading your post on a regular basis to help me handle it better so I don’t throw mummy tantrums. I’m featuring this post on the Sunday Parenting Party this weekend (you can grab a featured button from if you’d like one).

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