We transition a million times a day. For most of this is not a big deal. However, for children who have emotional regulation or developmental concerns transitions can be very disruptive. Transitions come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Small ones may be as simple as changing clothes, coming to dinner or leaving the park. A larger transition may be starting a new school, moving, adding a new baby or parents divorcing. Children who have difficulty transitioning may often respond to a small transition as if their pants are on fire. As parents and caregivers these responses can often throw us for a loop. It may make going to the grocery store, restaurant, or simply using a different plate at a mealtime impossible.
Let’s look at what is behind a transition. Transitioning to a new activity involves stopping the task we are currently doing and moving on to the next. Sounds simple. Let’s look at the skills required to do this. The skills needed are called executive functioning skills. Some of the executive functioning skills required are; impulse control, emotional regulation, flexible thinking, planning and prioritizing and task initiation. It also requires an awareness of time. Wow! There is a lot to just one single transition. No wonder we are tired at night!
We know that two year olds definitely do not have these skills and some 12 year olds are still working on these. Here are a few strategies to help you and your child manage transitions and practice the skills required for future success. We know that transitions may be difficult because children have fear of the unknown, what will be next. Children may also be forced to transition too quickly. Children may protest when they are having to leave a highly rewarding activity to go to a un-rewarding activity (screen time or the park to the grocery store).
- Have a way of signaling that the activity will be coming to an end. A sand timer, traditional timer or verbal 3 minute warning.
- Try a visual schedule to allow your child to see what they will be transitioning to. Often fear of the unknown of what’s to come can be very upsetting for children.
- Try a transition object. If your child has something that they are fond of you may hand them a stuffed animal or favorite toy to help with the transition.
- Try adding in a sensory break during the transition. Stomping for deep proprioceptive input to help calm, squeezing fists to pretend to make lemonaide with the “pretend” lemons in their hands, smelling the pretend flower and blowing out the birthday candles for calming.
- Make it fun if possible – walk to the car like your favorite zoo animal, give your child a piggy back ride, etc.
Be prepared for backlash. Let’s face it you may get some protest when you stop a preferred activity. Arm yourself with; snacks, water and a toy or object that will help distract your child. Put yourself in your child’s shoes if you just sat down to watch a much anticipated show and got pulled away to do something less exciting, you would be disappointed too. While your child is learning to be a better transitioner reassure them. Remember their brains are growing and the better that you can sustain your emotions during these difficult times the better they will be able to model your behavior in the future.