One of my most horrific parental moments was when I took my 2-year-old to the zoo for the first time. In my head I expected it to be a fun mommy-and-me day, and it completely was...until she decided she decided she DID NOT want to leave the zoo. It took almost 2 hours of trying every strategy I could think of before I got her into her stroller and out the exit. Almost every parent I know has some dreaded story stemming from transitions. Transitions are a major tantrum trigger for all young children. The toddler's brain is still developing the connection that helps with stopping one activity to start another. Young children also have difficulty expressing their frustrations and often feel powerless because they feel little control. Below are several simple strategies you can use to ease your child’s transitions:
- Give Warnings. Children do not have a strong concept of time but they understand sequences and events. For example, after they go down the slide one more time it’s time to go home or after the Legos are put away it’s time to get ready for bed.
- Visuals. One of the tricks I frequently used to leave toy stores was to set a timer on my iPhone. My daughter loved pressing the START button, she would choose the ringer sound and when it was done she pressed the STOP. It gave her a sense of control and most of all it was not me who told her it was time to go it was the “timer”.
- Transition Object. Going along with visuals some children benefit from having a transition object to signal to them it’s time to do something else. For example, handing your child their jacket or backpack lets them know it’s time to leave the house. For a younger child, you can give them a set of toy car keys to let them know it’s time to get back into the car.
- Play A Game. We have a secret language in my house. When I say “Puma” =it means I want something done fast. “Ninja”= means quiet. “Puma” sounds so much more fun to a toddler than yelling “Hurry Up!”. You can also pretend to be whatever animal or mythical creature your toddler is into at that moment and gallop out of the park together. That sounds a lot more fun than dragging them kicking and screaming right?
- Set the Mood. You can change the environment to help ease your child into transitions. At my house around 7pm, we start closing the blinds, using a quieter tone, and turning off lights downstairs. It signals to both my children that bedtime is approaching.
- Give Them Some Control. Toddlers crave independence and a sense of control. A great tactic is giving them some control but controlling the guidelines. Would they like to take a bath in 3 minutes or in 5 minutes? Would they like to brush their teeth using the blue or purple toothbrush? When they leave the indoor play area would they like you to carry them or would they like to walk on their own?
Despite these techniques, a transition still might fall apart. It’s important to validate your child’s feelings, letting them know how frustrating it must be to leave something that they enjoy. If you do have a successful transition go ahead and give them positive praise (i.e., high 5s, specific compliment). Oh- and if all else fails don’t forget about the 7.) Universal Distraction Tactic. That is how I got my 2-year-old back in her stroller at the zoo. I gave her two packets of ketchup and buckled her into her stroller as fast as I could.
Kat is school psychologist with over a decade of experience working with toddlers to school-aged children. She is also a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator and has taught classes and workshops in increasing coping skills and self-regulation to children. She specializes with early intervention, Autism, and behavior management. She lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and two young kids.
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