>Dear Dr. Hackney,
I have two 18-month-old boys and want to know a good way to transition them from one task to another, especially when they don’t want to end the initial task. For example, when they have to leave a fun activity to go home, I find that at this age, giving a five minute warning doesn’t seem to work since they don’t grasp time. My goal is to minimize tantrums and blow-ups.
Mother of two 18-month-old boys
There are lots of ways to calm transitions. While you are right, they don’t grasp time, giving a five minute warning can be helpful. If when you say “five minutes” you actually mean five minutes and stick to it, they will learn what this means, and it becomes helpful long before they can tell time. If when you say “five minutes” you sometimes mean five minutes and sometimes mean twenty minutes, the warning is meaningless.
As long as you are consistent, you can use a song to let them know it is time to go. We had a family at our office that sang the Jeopardy jiggle with their two-year-old when it was about time to leave. They would hold a hand and rock a bit while they sang, and by the end of the tune, they would be waving good-bye. Their child was always tickled by the song.
You might also create a “goodbye ritual” such as whenever it is time to leave, we will high-five those we are leaving behind. This means you have to find someone to high-five which may be awkward among strangers, but it gives the boys something to actively do when it is time to leave.
You might have luck giving them responsibilities as you go. Asking one to be the bag carrier or the door holder gets them proactively involved in the moment. This idea of contribution helps to bypass power struggles.
When it is possible, you might allow them to take something with them as they leave. This might be easiest when you are leaving your own house and transitioning out. If they were busy with building blocks, taking one along for the ride might make parting easier.
Empathy might be helpful in these moments. Saying, “Wow, you are frustrated. You don’t want to leave,” may help to calm the brewing tantrum. When we validate emotions children tend to calm.
You might also give them choices about how to leave. Once it is time, you might say, “Do you want to hop or stomp to the car?” or “Do you want to hold my hand or my pocket while we go?” Choices give children an out and avoid the need for discipline.
Rene Hackney, PhD.