Transitions Can be Easier


There are so many transitions built into a family’s day. For children, this may include the shift to getting dressed, leaving the house, stopping play, finishing projects, cleaning up, coming to the table for meals, going upstairs for bath and settling in bed for sleep. All of these steps can have small transitions within which can be a lot.

Real and consistent warning – Most children transition better when given warnings. It is helpful to use the same language and mean the same amount of time for each warning. When my girls were younger I said, “we are done in five minutes, finish up,” and, “one more minute, do your last thing.” When I said this, I was also sure to say five minutes and mean five minutes. If sometimes it meant two minutes because I was in a hurry, or it meant twenty minutes because I got distracted, the warnings weren’t as helpful. Even before children can tell time, the consistency is helpful.

Additional cues – It can be helpful to build in additional cues. This might be a visual cue like flipping the lights, a physical cue like a transition high-five or an auditory cue like ringing a bell. This is just another consistent signal that it’s time for a transition.

Proximity – If your child tends to ignore or run away at the start of transitions, it can be helpful to stand beside them or even hold their hand just before the transition starts.

Empathy (limit as needed) – This would be saying, “I’m sorry you are frustrated, but it’s time to go upstairs.” When you acknowledge emotions, emotions tend to calm. It’s often helpful to state the limit in a calm way.

Positive directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive. This is saying, “come back and clean up the toys,” rather than, “stop running around.” Here is a full post about positive directions.

Ask their plan or their first step – Asking how they are going to get started can help a child focus on the task and move forward.

Build in choices, challenges and contribution – For going upstairs choices would be, “do you want to walk or crawl upstairs,” or, “do you want to brush teeth first or change into pajamas when you get upstairs?” Challenges would be, “let’s race up stairs. Ready, go!” Contribution would be, “I need a toothpaste squeezer.”

Focus on the good in the next thing – Want your child to stop playing, go upstairs and take a bath? You might focus on how many bubbles they can make with the bubble bath or which toys they’d like to play with in the tub.

Give descriptive praise when it goes well – This would be, “you listened the first time. That is helpful!” or, “you went upstairs so fast. You were super speedy!” You want to reinforce this behavior, so describe the behavior and give it a label. Here is a full post about descriptive praise.

A post on better clean-up times

A post on better morning routines

A post on better bedtime routines



>Difficult Transitions

>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

Dear Annie,

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.