Transitions for kids: Why they’re difficult and how to help
Transitions are tough for most people. Us humans are creatures of habit and our brains like predictability, consistency and structure. Transitions for kids can be particularly problematic and can often be triggers for challenging behaviours like meltdowns, whining, and even aggression. Especially if we are asking them to stop something they enjoy to do something they don’t like.
So when we attempt to transition our kids to a new activity, we can be met with resistance, avoidance, inattention and distraction, whining, or a full blown meltdown. Sometimes these are an attempt to delay the transition and keep doing what they enjoy (do your children suddenly get really thirsty at bedtime too?). But mostly, these behaviours are a result of kids feeling overwhelmed by the demands placed on them, and being unable to regulate their emotions due to increased stress.
So what exactly constitutes a transition?
What are transitions?
Quite simply, transitions occur when children have to stop one activity to move to another. Kids are required to transition between activities multiple times a day, and for a sensitive child, this can be particularly difficult. It doesn’t help that we are often asking kids to stop an activity they enjoy or prefer doing, in order to complete an activity they don’t enjoy, or that they have to do.
Common transitions for kids that occur daily include:
- Leaving the park
- Getting out of the bath
- Getting ready to leave the house
- Switching off the TV to eat dinner
- Packing away toys to get ready for bed
Difficulty with transitions are ultimately a difficulty with regulation. Transitions increase stress and often, they also require a child to shift their level of arousal. Most transitions require kids to either up or down regulate to meet the needs of the situation. They need to go from active (such as when they are playing) to calm (sitting in the car or at the dinner table), or from calm and alert (in the classroom) to more energised (on the playground at recess).
Why do kids struggle with transitions?
Everyone struggles with transitions to some degree. It takes a lot of energy to switch from one activity to the other and to move through arousal states. So transitions, especially if they are unexpected or need to be done quickly, can be incredibly stressful for the brain.
Transitions also require executive functioning skills. To move to a new activity children need a degree of cognitive flexibility. They to shift their focus and attention, first to your instructions, then to the new activity. They need to control their impulses, use their working memory in order to follow your instructions, regulate their emotions, and initiate the new task. They might also need to use their prioritisation, planning and organisation skills, depending on what you’ve asked them to do. And they need to do all of these things pretty much at the same time, and with a super quick turn around from one activity to the next.
No wonder the end result is a meltdown! Transitions are super stressful for a still developing brain. And most young children simply do not have the skills they need to do it alone. They need support and co regulation from a safe and trusted adult.
10 ways to support kids with transitions and prevent meltdowns:
1. Plan ahead
If you are stressed and rushed during a transition, your child will also feel stressed. And unfortunately, a lot of the time the extra pressure and stress makes things even worse – kids get distracted and have trouble focusing, they slow down, they forget things, and they make mistakes. All of this will increase your stress and anxiety, increasing their stress and anxiety, and perpetuating the cycle. Ensuring you plan ahead for transitions will ease everyone’s stress. Make sure you have everything you need, and leave plenty of time for any unexpected issues that may arise.
2. Focus on connection
No one wants to have orders barked at them from across a room. When we take time to connect with our children, we help them feel good, and they become more open to our influence. So take time to really notice your child and acknowledge what they are doing before you move them along. This could look like getting down to your child’s level, placing a hand on their shoulder, making eye contact, sitting next to them, asking them questions about what they’re doing, or even engaging in the activity with them for a few moments.
3. Validate feelings
Transitions are hard. Your child might be really enjoying the activity they are engaged in. Acknowledge that. Let them know that you understand how much fun they are having. Let them know that you understand it’s tough to pack away. Acknowledge their disappointment or frustration. Parents are often worried that if they bring attention to how their child feels in these moments, they will amplify the feelings. But the opposite is true. Having someone truly understand how you feel can allow for children to process the emotion and let it go.
4. Prepare kids
Let your child know what will happen ahead of time. Don’t spring a transition onto an unsuspecting child – this will only increase their anxiety. Instead, talk to your child about exactly what will happen step by step. Let them know what to expect – what can they expect will happen, and what do you expect of them in the situation also. Brains don’t like surprises much – they make them feel unsafe. And the result is often a meltdown.
5. Use visual cues
Visual cues like routine charts that show children what’s coming next can really ease the stress of transitions. They provide a quick reference point for kids so they can easily see the next activity for the day, or the next step in the routine. But they also take pressure off caregivers. When you have a good visual routine in place, the routine can be the boss instead of you! You can make less demands on your child, which lessens their stress – and yours – and makes for a much smoother transition overall. That’s why we have a printable rhythms and routines visuals pack for our members inside of The Mindful Little Mama!
6. Countdown or use a visual timer
Be clear about how long the activity will last and help your child understand this ahead of time. Using a visual countdown like a clock or alarm can be helpful, especially for younger kids, but you can also just alert them verbally. For example, I like to give my kids a 10 minute, 5 minute, 2 minute and final turn warning at the park. Most of the time, they leave without complaint because they had plenty of notice and time to prepare emotionally for the end of the activity.
7. Use transition music
A fun song that indicates it’s time to move on to the next activity can be a great help at transition times, especially for younger kids. It is fun and playful, it captures attention, and music has a wonderfully soothing and regulating effect on the brain. Music also creates a buffer between activities, allowing kids time and space to mentally prepare for the next activity.
8. Use transition objects
For more significant transitions like bedtime, school or child care drop off, or travelling away from home, a transition object can provide some comfort to children. Transition objects might be things like teddies or dolls, blankets, small toys, or even special photos of loved ones. They provide a bridge between two locations, people, or experiences and help children feel connected and secure even when they are apart from the people and places they love.
9. Be playful
Inject some fun into your transitions by making them playful and silly. Race to the bathroom. Hop to the dinner table like a kangaroo. Roar like a lion while you brush your teeth. Transitions tend to be difficult for kids because they have to stop an activity they are enjoying – so make your transition an extension of their play! Notice what your child is doing, and then follow their lead as you move onto a new activity
10. Provide structure and routine
Creating a routine around transition times that occur daily can help to ease the stress caused by the unknown. Brains like predictability. They want to know what comes next so they can anticipate how to respond. When we set up regular routines and structure around times like bedtime, mealtimes, or getting ready for school, we free up energy that would have been used trying to work out what happens next. More energy means less stress, and a smoother transition for all. In fact, providing structure and routine are so important, we have a whole masterclass dedicated to setting up routines, rhythms and rituals inside of the Mindful Little Mama.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.