Expert Opinion

What to do when your child struggles with transitions

Has your child ever had a meltdown when you’ve asked them to stop one activity and move to another?
Transitions can be tricky for a lot of children – whether it is a minor transition from the toy box to the dinner table, to life transitions like commencing school or moving house. When talking about transitions here, we’re basically referring to the change experienced when moving between two situations. So, if you think about the life of a child, there are many, many transitions every single day! In my experience, I’ve seen children struggle with transitions like being dropped off or picked up from childcare, moving from the sandpit to the reading corner at kindergarten, transitioning between specialist classes at school – even the simplest transition of getting into the car can be stressful.
Even as adults, we can struggle with transitions – but the difference tends to be that we have the self-regulation tools to cope (mostly)! These skills are yet to develop in younger children, which can lead to various challenges. In fact, children of all ages can struggle with transitions for a number of reasons, including:

 

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Avoidance – not wanting to move from a fun activity to a less preferred one
  • Skill deficit – not know knowing how to perform the activity or task required
  • Communication delays – not understanding what is required when given spoken instructions
  • Tiredness and hunger can exacerbate the emotional response
  • Difficulty with change – for many children, change in any form evokes anxiety
  • Unexpectedness – not being prepared for a change/transition

While many children will display challenging behaviours when transitioning, for some, the signs can be more subtle. You might notice moodiness, reluctance to communicate, withdrawal and/or heightened emotions in the lead-up to a transition.
This can be even harder to identify in situations you wouldn’t traditionally associate with being a ‘difficult transition’, such as going to a birthday party or packing the car for a holiday. As adults, we wouldn’t consider these exciting activities to trigger an emotional response in our children – who could imagine not wanting to go on a holiday! But remember, as adults, we can predict what’s coming next and we know it will be fun. So, when we see the car getting packed, or the birthday present being wrapped, we can rely on our past experiences to know what’s coming next (going on holiday, going to a party) and to recall that we enjoyed these events, leading us to feel excited. But for children, they can most certainly struggle with transitioning to a ‘fun’ activity because a) it might actually not be fun for them, or b) they haven’t had as many opportunities to experience these activities, so it’s harder for them to predict that what is ahead will be positive.
So, what to do? Start to notice the situations where your child is struggling, and consider if it could be due to a looming transition. There are a multitude of ways you can handle difficulties with situations, and often it comes down to devising some individualised strategies.
Here are some general treatment strategies I often recommend to parents:

 

  1. Simply having awareness that your child’s behaviour might be due to a transition should provide an insight into their experience and you can then help to reassure them and support them through the transition.
  2. If you realise your child’s challenge is due to a skill deficit – not knowing how to perform an activity required in the transition, be proactive and teach them outside of that moment when they’re calm.
  3. Provide warnings for transitions to help prepare your child. You’ll work out how much notice your child needs. I like to recommend ‘countdown’ warnings such as “5 more minutes of TV before dinner time”, followed by “3 more minutes before the TV goes off and it’s time for dinner”, and so on.
  4. Give yourself more time to transition so you’re not stressed about challenging behaviours. If you’re not stressed, that removes one factor that can make transitions even harder. Oftentimes, kids soak up our emotions without us even realising.
  5. Be organised. If your child struggles with transitions like the morning or night-time routine, have everything as ready as you can in advance so that you are not needing to fumble with items while transitioning your child.
  6. For big transitions, use supports like books and even make your own social stories with your child to help them understand what’s expected in the transition.
  7. Having a ‘transition object’ can help a child move between activities or cope with big transitions – it could be a toy to comfort them or even the use of a ‘transition song’ which I’ve used with clients to help them move between activities (we just make a song up and use this every time we transition).
  8. If your child struggles with communication, try using visual cues like pictures to help them understand the transition.

While tricky transition behaviours are hard for us adults to manage in our kids, the transitions are even harder for the kids themselves. Giving them the tools to learn how to navigate and manage these situations will set them up for a lifetime of being able to manage change that little bit more easily.
Car transitions

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.