Boy struggling with transition

Struggling with Transitions? Here’s One Thing You Can Do Today That Will Help

Struggling around transitions with your child? Then how many of these moments sound familiar and fill you with dread? 

Do you watch the clock, count the seconds, and run requests in your mind waaaay before you ask your child to stop an activity? 

Do you worry about how much your child cries or clings to your leg if you even suggest leaving? 

Does your child seem wild, boundary-pushing or extra sensitive anytime there is a change to their schedule? 

They are all transitions, and they can all be tricky.

If your child struggles with transitions, you’ll see they are a very common and convenient place to hook upsets on. They can happen when you simply ask your child to stop building Lego and come eat, when you ask them to tidy, when you mention running out to get the package of rice you forgot and need for dinner. They can happen when they visit or return from visiting a parent, a grandparent, or a best friend. They can happen when you want the TV or computer turned off or your phone returned. 

For every transition you may see a different reaction

How do you know a transition upsets your child? Look for these reactions:

  • Screaming
  • Crying
  • Tantrum
  • Meltdown
  • Cussing or sassisnes
  • Breaking rules your child can usually follow
  • Stubborn refusals
  • Slammed doors and silence
  • And that’s not even all of them.

However tricky transitions play out in your house, you can be sure of one thing.

Transitions are a frequent trigger for your child to bring up their feelings.

But – and it’s a big but – very often, these tricky transitions have nothing to do with deep emotions and feelings a child is really working on.

Why do some kids struggle so hard with transitions?

Where do these triggers come from?

They could be rooted in fears from a tricky birth or early medical interventions, or the unsettling arrival of a new sibling, moving house, a new childcare setting, or a parents’ separation or divorce.

These things can still play a part weeks, months or years after those fears got stuck.

In our family, leaving the park after school is a regular hurdle for us. (This comes with the added complication of playing out in front of parent friends and the general public). 

Understanding what’s going on for our kids

Some of the upset that transitions cause is natural and understandable, when we take a minute to think about it.

I had a great Maths Mentor when I was training to be a teacher. 

One day she set us off on an engaging problem-solving challenge. After five minutes, without warning, the teacher interrupted us, told us we should stop the activity immediately, wherever we had got to, and told us to move onto a new activity.

She was demonstrating how a class of children would all feel differently about this abrupt shift in attention. 

We had a range of responses, ranging from disappointment, to exasperation, to an urgent need to complete the task we had been engrossed in. 

Some of us were unable to shift our attention knowing we had not yet finished. Others felt a sense of relief that they could stop an activity that wasn’t giving them any satisfaction anyway.

And so, I learnt that just because I was ready to finish one activity and move on to the next, I couldn’t expect all my pupils to be.

You might feel this if, right in the middle of an email, you were told to quit and move on. 

The same was true of my child playing in the park. He had a need to stay. And I wasn’t really going to “win” him around by bartering, shouting, dragging him home. 

What I could do was simple. Startlingly so, but i’d missed it. 

I could plan for the transition. Give him – and me – some warning. 

That’s the one thing you can do today that will help transitions become easier, even if your child often struggles. 

This strategy is your new best friend when you want transitions to feel easier 

Let’s start with a question. Do you know your child’s triggers?

A child could use meal times as a trigger; bedtimes; getting out the house in the morning; (or all and every transition) but often children do have a favourite moment to work on whatever has troubled them. 

So, take a minute. What would you say are your child’s transition triggers?

  • Waking up
  • Dressing
  • Mealtimes
  • One particular meal time
  • Activities
  • Snack
  • Going to school
  • Returning from school
  • Getting ready for bed
  • Or something entirely different?

When the moment occurs, I think that it can often that can be good and bad. 

The Good and The Bad of tricky transitions

First, The Bad: if you have had to endure these struggles at the same time, every time, you will probably be exhausted, frustrated and simply want “the problem” to go away.

There is probably residual stress that rears its ugly head in YOUR system every time the known struggle-time approaches. 

The extra bad news is that your child’s triggers aren’t going anywhere, so whether you like it or not, they will surface. 

But don’t forget about the good. 

The Good: If you know WHEN the upset is likely to appear you’ve got a head start.

You can plan for the upset.

Meet it calmly, as a reliable friend. Know that this is the time you are both working on an emotional project that will strengthen your relationship and bring eventual relief to your child.

Want to make sure that transitions never take you by surprise again?

Let your children know the transition is coming. 

I told you it sounded simple!

After all, letting children know ahead of time that they will need to wrap up an activity or outing before moving on is a common parenting strategy now. It’s a sign of respect that your children are autonomous beings with their own thoughts, feelings and agendas.

But even given some warning our children sometimes, or often, (or always!) still struggle when the transition time arrives.

And while we know it can be helpful to give a child notice that their time is coming to an end, we also know that a continual countdown is less, not more, helpful.

There’s a difference between planning and prodding

We’ve all done the running commentary. You know it. Sounds something like “Ten more minutes.” 

“Five minutes to go, my love” 

“Just one more minute and we’re going to have to go!”  

Each reminder gets slightly shriller and more desperate than the last. Really, you are silently pleading that your child comes away without a big scene this time.

But these constant interruptions only irritate your child and serve as a constant reminder that their time is slipping away. 

The countdown adds to your stress too. We hope things will go differently, of course, but when you use your energy here, you don’t leave much for when the transition happens. Your child’s feelings bubble up and you feel like the countdown failed – you failed – and you’re spent. 

You snap. Or yell. 

And they struggle to stop. Again. 

Don’t Avoid But Do Listen

Staylistening through upset and partnering with your child whilst they show you how hard it is for them to move on, helps them to shift whatever is stopping them from being able to cooperate.

But, if we know when the upsets are likely to take place, we can also do other things to support our children before the transition time upsets are triggered.

Reconnect BEFORE the transition

Even five minutes of your warm, undivided attention allows your child to get a good dose of connection, filling their cup. Connection gets their brain back online and helps them remember the reality that they can (probably) come back to the current activity another time.

I try to engage with my child for a few un-rushed minutes before proposing we leave the park for home. I’ll offer warm eye-contact, gentle physical contact, and genuine interest and curiosity about what they’re up to. As much as possible I will show my delight and approval in them and whatever they’re engrossed in. If we manage to connect in this way, most often they can come away, perhaps with only a declaration of how much they don’t want to.

And I’m happy to acknowledge that, yep, it sucks to stop doing something we’re enjoying, or stop being with someone we want to be with.

Expect feelings to come up for your child

Sometimes our children just need to work through their feelings in order to be able to feel our connection. 

“When you listen to crying of frustration, the child lets the awful feeling out, and your attention and caring then flows in” says Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand.

If your child is working on something big no amount of laughter will shift it alone. It can be helpful to take note after you’ve listened to a cry or tantrum to see if your child is more cooperative or affectionate sometime after. If so, you can be sure your warm attention has hit the spot.  

How to plan for a good reunion after extended periods apart

It can be helpful to keep in mind that you and your child naturally get disconnected many times a day. Even if it’s just while they are playing alone. 

For us, it’s when our children are at school, but if you commute or work long shifts out of the home, or you’re separated from your co-parent it could be much longer periods.

Your child may not be able to immediately feel the connection you are offering when you reunite.  There might be trickier feelings that are getting in the way.

It can be helpful to expect and plan for off-track, wonky behaviour when you and your child reunite.

Playlistening is a great pre-emptive strike when a transition has led to disconnection.

This is the quickest way to reconnect 

Laughter and physical contact are the quickest way for people to connect, and you can playlisten with many children at once (as opposed to Special Time which is one on one time)

So, if your children tend to be standoffish or out of kilter when you reunite, planning some play, laughter and physical contact can help break the ice and reconnect, either dispelling the discomfort with laughter, or building safety so they can release pent up tension through crying.

  • Position some indoor snowballs or rolled up socks in the hallway to bombard your children with when they walk in the door.
  • Give a twinkle-eyed invitation to start a cushion fight. “Oh, look how tidy the living room is! I hope nobody throws a pillow at me…” (My son will sometimes check in with me that he understands the subtext correctly and I stage whisper “it’s ok, go ahead” and grin as I repeat my mock “oh, I hope no one…”)
  • A favourite game of ours that encourages physical contact is a Patty Wipfler Classic. Feign surprise that the sofa/bed/chair/floor is lumpy and uncomfortable when, in fact, you have sat (gently) on your child and wiggled about as if trying to squish a cushion into a more comfortable position. Then jump up and proclaim astonishment that there is, in fact, a child underneath you. And repeat.

Sometimes the tension around the transitions cannot be shifted easily with laughter and allowing space for a child’s other emotions is what’s needed.

Does your child’s reaction trigger you?

When the transition has an emotional effect on us as parents this can be harder to spot and harder to listen to. For example, if school was a difficult place for you as a child, picking your children up from the school yard can add to your tension, and make you less playful.  Or if the transitions are due to a painful marriage breakdown that you still hold feelings around.

Several of the families I have worked with in the last decade have navigated separation and divorce whilst their children have been in my care. Being a childminder really means working with the whole family, so I often witness these tricky transitions from all angles. My own parents separated when I was ten so my experience comes from being the child transitioning from house to house regularly.

When Your Child Greets You In Tears

A few years ago I was looking after a baby who had recently begun to stay at his dad’s house overnight. They began to fuss and cling to me when I would drop them home to mum.  It wasn’t because they didn’t want to be with mum , but they sensed they had  two warm, attentive, safe adults so they could work on feelings around saying goodbye, being disconnected for long periods, and needing to reconnect in order to “feel” content.

This struggle is obviously tricky for any mum to feel. No one wants to greet their child and be met with tears.

I suggested there could be occasions when the child had wanted to be with her and hadn’t wanted to say goodbye to her. And times when they wanted to be with Dad and didn’t want to say goodbye to him either.  The transition from me to mum was probably the safest one to cry over, and to let out those hurts.

It took only a couple of occasions of us both listening to his crying. The last time it happened we were all kneeling together and little one  suddenly stopped crying, looked up and then posted a small leaf down Mum’s t-shirt and started giggling, then snuggled into Mum, and gave her a big cuddle.

Try this before your the next transition happens

Planning doesn’t sound revolutionary. Or even exciting. For those of us allergic to planners and schedules, it may even leave you short of breath with panic. 

But it it helps. 

Really. 

Planning is the one thing that you can do today that will make things easier if your child struggles with transitions. 

So jump in and try this challenge. 

If you think about your day tomorrow, which transition would you expect your child to resist? 

  • Can you imagine a point where you could move in and reconnect? 
  • Are there ways you could get some giggles going, either before the transition or during it? 
  • How could you make space so that you had some time and patience to listen to what comes up for them at that time? (You’ll find that planning helps with this too).

Try these ideas. Try expecting the transition and planning for it. And let us know how it goes. 

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