behavior development parenting

Tips for Parents of Toddlers & Preschoolers Who Struggle with Transitions!


If you are struggling with transitions with your little one, then you are in the right place!  In this post, I'm gonna be talking about why young kids struggle with transitions as well as several different strategies that you can use to ease the transition struggle bus so let's get right to it.. 

If you've been following me, then you know that I always like to start by discussing the development that drives the challenging behaviors that we see from our young children. I think if we can understand and meet them where they're at, it just makes it so much easier for both us and for them, because we're not expecting too much of them.

So, one of the primary reasons that little ones struggle with transitions is because they really don't have any kind of sense of time, right? Five minutes means nothing to a two year old. Developmentally, they are able to understand sequences by about the age of eight months. So I cry and I get a bottle. So I'm understanding when I do this, I get that.  They start to understand night and day by about 22 months.  Finally, they start to understand the past and future by about 33 to 36 months. 

So nowhere in there did I mention the ability for them to understand time concepts such as five minutes.  As such, we have to keep in mind they're still learning all of those really basic concepts. So, for the sake of our kids' moods, let's avoid using time increments because it’s  just gonna frustrate you and frustrate them. Instead, we're gonna be better off using words like next, before, after and the like.  Understanding ‘this is next’ will be much easier for them.   So, keep it really, really simple, but we're gonna talk more about some strategies that you can use to help during those transitions in a minute. 

Another reason that our toddlers struggle during transitions is because they're not really great listeners. I always like to tell parents that listening is something that we teach. Most of us are born with the ability to hear, but listening is something that we teach our children. So it's really important during that process that, again, we keep things simple. 

When we're giving directions to toddlers and to preschoolers, we talk far too much.  They get easily confused and we end up sounding like the teacher in the old Charlie Brown shows, i.e., waa waa waa.   I have a video on how we can support helping our little ones learn to be better listeners that you can watch here.  

So, another piece that can contribute to difficult transitions is temperament. And I really don't think that as parents we really take the time sometimes to really understand temperament. I mean, think about it:  you probably know folks who have no problem doing things at the drop of a hat. And then there are other friends or family members who get anxious and need time to prepare. That's temperament. Understanding your child's temperament and what works for them and what does not, is important. Sometimes as parents, we think that they just need to kind of go with our agenda because this is what works for us, but it's almost like dating:  we gotta really figure out what is going on inside our little toddlers bodies and heads and how they are wired and respect that, just like we would if we were trying to figure out how to enter into a relationship with somebody else. 

In dating and marriage, we have to decide how we are gonna communicate with this person in a way that works for both them and for us. If you wanna learn more about temperament and the different traits that are involved and how that relates to your little one, you guessed it – I have a video on that here!  

The last thing I want to say about transitions is we need to respect the process. For example, when our kid is watching TV and we need to do dinner, we just turn the TV off and think they are going to come to dinner and be okay with that. We need to understand that play is a child’s job.  We need to consider this when we need for them to end a task.  We wouldn’t want someone to just abruptly pull us away from a desired activity and expect us to come happily or willingly.  It’s the same for our kids.  So when your little ones are involved in something, instead of using time phrases, try talking about how they might finish their task more quickly, e.g., ‘how many more blocks do you need to put on to be done, how about three?’  Showing respect for their ‘work’ will lead to less resistance over time. 

Okay, so let's get into some strategies that you can use to try to ease those transitions:

  • Choices. The first strategy is to front load by giving your child a lot of choices. So why choices? Because choices allow us to share control and when we're transitioning kids from one thing to the next thing, they are feeling a loss of control. Giving them choices throughout the day about things that you really don't care about is a great way to put money in the bank so that they feel like they've had control over things in their day. So when giving choices, you only wanna give two, and you wanna make sure that you can live with either one of those choices. Okay? So for example, do you want a banana or an orange? Do you wanna wear your socks or do you wanna go no socks? Do you wanna wear boots or do you wanna wear tennis shoes? Do you want a fork or do you want a spoon? Do you want a napkin or do you want a paper towel? It really doesn't matter. The more choices you can give, the more you're sharing control with your child, the less they're gonna feel like they have to take control back. So front load them by giving them lots of choices.  PRO TIP: It's hard to remember to do this right, because we get into our little routines during the day. So my biggest tip is to use a visual reminder for yourself. I used to put sticky notes in the bathroom, on the refrigerator, by the play area that said 'choices' in with a bold sharpie. I'm reaching into that refrigerator anyhow, I might as well grab the milk and the juice if that's what I'm willing to offer my child. So always give them two choices and try to incorporate that into all the routines that you can during the day. But just start with one. 
  • Sensory Input:  Another great tip for helping with transitions is to front load your little one with sensory activity. For example, if you have a child who doesn’t like to stop playing to eat lunch and gets up from the lunch table repeatedly, you may want to incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine BEFORE lunch time.  Perhaps you do 45 minutes of outdoor play and then come in to eat.  Providing sensory input such as running, jumping and climbing naturally sends calm down chemicals to their brains putting them in better moods and making transitions a bit easier. 
  • Visual Picture Schedules:  One of my favorite strategies to help with transitions is a visual picture schedule. I already mentioned that listening is not something that little ones are great with.  Looking, on the other hand, tends to be a strength for most young children. A visual picture schedule outlines what your day is going to look like using small picture images.  Reviewing it frequently throughout the day with your child can help increase their understanding of what’s next leading to smoother transitions. For example, I had a family whose little one was struggling with leaving the school after they dropped off his sibling. We created a visual picture schedule that looked something like this:  breakfast, car, school, home,play-doh, library and back to school.  It really made the transition for this little one so much easier because he could SEE the fun things that were coming after his sibling was dropped off.  Not sure how to make a visual picture schedule?  You can find lots of tips over on Pinterest or you can check the one I made over in my Etsy store.
  • Visual Timer:  Another strategy that can sometimes be helpful when working with little ones on transitions is to use a visual timer. And you can find different apps that will have a visual timer like this one.  When the circle is completely red, time is up – a great visual for young kids.  You can buy actual physical timers as well.  I like this one as it only goes up to 20 minutes where most go up to an hour.  Perfect for young kids.
  • Music:  All of the preschool teachers that I've worked with over the years were masters at having transition songs. The most popular transition song, of course, is the Clean Up Song and it is quite effective!  You can have transition songs for any routines that your child struggles with, e.g, bathtime, mealtime, getting dressed, etc. Can’t find one?  Make it up!  Honestly, your kids don’t care – they just want to have fun.
  • Transitional Objects:  I've had some families over the years that have had success using transitional objects. For example, for a little one who doesn't want to stop an activity to come sit down at the meal.  Having one of their favorite stuffed animals join that meal every day can make the transition a bit easier. It might sound something like this:   “So we are all done with the blocks. It is time to eat. Let's grab Toby Tiger and bring him to the table because he's really hungry.”  I had another parent who used a transitional object to get their child out of the house and into the car seat because they really hated going to drop their brother off at school. Having special things that they get to do or have, whether it's a finger fidget, a blanket or a stuffed animal, can sometimes help in getting them from A to B. 
  • Transitioning kids away from screens:  All right, a quick comment about transitioning children from screens. This is probably one of the hardest transitions that parents experience when they're trying to get their little one to move away from the TV show that they're watching or to turn off the iPad or phone. So my tip is this: Find something else to keep them busy. I would not use electronics. It is really hard for kids to shut their brains off from electronics. So instead, find something such as a calming activity like sensory play. 

If despite all of this, your little one still has a meltdown during a transition, remember the three C’s:  calm-connect-correct.  You can learn more about that here.  

In summary, the biggest thing that I'm trying to encourage parents to do during transitions is to be proactive. If we know that our little is gonna struggle from going from playtime to mealtime, that is where we wanna focus our energy looking for strategies to put into place to make the transition easier for them. So plan ahead and hopefully, with these tips, you now have some extra tools that you can try to support your child with those tricky transitions.