Patience and planning: Successfully managing young children’s transition tantrums

rsz transition tantrums 150x150 Patience and planning: Successfully managing young children’s transition tantrumsQuestion: My two and a half year old screams when it’s time to stop playing and get ready for bed, have lunch, or even go outside, something he loves to do once he’s actually outside. Is there anything I can do to reduce his transition tantrums?

Answer: Kids vary a lot in how prone they are to tantrums, but almost all toddlers and young children have problems with transitions from one activity to another, even if the next activity is something they enjoy doing.

Why Do Little Kids Have Transition Tantrums?

  1. Engagement and mastery. One of the great things about little kids is how engaged they can get in something that interests them, especially if they feel like they’re mastering something. It can feel absolutely imperative to continue to work on the Lego bridge, watch a favourite video, or play with the stuffed animals.
  2. Independence. Young children are in the process of becoming independent. They’re beginning to feel an urgency about doing things all by themselves, and that’s a good thing in the long run. A small child can resist doing something—even if it’s a favourite activity—just because someone else wants them to do it.
  3. Sense of time. Little kids don’t have a sense of time. They can’t really grasp that it’s okay to stop doing a cherished activity now because they can do it again later. Relinquishing a cherished activity now feels like relinquishing it forever.
  4. Separation anxiety. Transition tantrums are more likely if the post-transition activity involves separation from a parent.
  5. Sensitivity and uncertainty. Transitions are about change, and bring on a feeling of uncertainty. A child who is intense or sensitive by temperament requires extra careful handling if you want to prevent transition tantrums.
  6. Unmet needs. When toddlers are hungry, tired, hot, feeling insecure, or haven’t had enough free play time, they’re more likely to have transition tantrums.

How to Prevent or Minimize Transition Tantrums

You’re on a schedule, and you don’t usually have a lot of time flexibility. What can you do to reduce transition tantrums?

  1. Plan ahead for transitions. Some kids can move pretty flexibly into the next activity, and some need 15 or 20 minutes to make the shift. Know your child’s needs, and allocate enough time.
  2. Establish a transition routine. A transition routine starts with an announcement of what’s to follow, and then includes a countdown with a series of reminders. For example, ‘You have three minutes to finish the bridge, and then it’ll be snack time. I’ll set the microwave timer so you can see how long you’ve got.’ Make announcements at the two minute and one minute marks—‘Two minutes to snack time!’—and then every 15 seconds.
  3. Formulate a calm-down plan for yourself. Your little one will feel any frustration or sense of urgency you might have, and that will exacerbate the problems. Breathe deeply, count to 10, or do whatever else helps you stay calm.
  4. Remember that your toddler is doing important growing-up work. He’s not a bad kid. He’s doing what he needs to do. It’s not about you.
  5. Make it fun if you possibly can. Andrea Nair gives this example of what you can say: “It is car seat time. Let’s see if you can get in there before I count to four (close eyes) one… two…” In this scenario, my inside voice is usually saying, “JUST GET IN YOUR F***ING SEAT!” Sometimes just thinking about that makes me laugh and diffuse my anger. Be calm. Don’t yell during transitions. Ever.’
  6. Change it up as needed. Although it’s good to have mostly consistent transition routines, sometimes it’s good to be flexible. At signs of imminent transition tantrums, you might provide an extra layer of choice, such as, ‘Do you want the timer for three minutes, or do you want me to sing three rounds of “You Are My Sunshine”?’
  7. Respect what your child is working on. If he’s just about finished doing something—building the Lego bridge, reading the book, creating the new train track configuration—give him a few extra minutes to finish it if you possibly can. If it’s not possible, schedule a time to get back to it, and make sure you honour that.

For more on preventing and handling all kinds of tantrums, including transition tantrums: nothing else works to get the attention they need.

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