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Ask the Parent Coach: How to Help Toddlers Handle Transitions

Published on: January 12, 2012

Ask the Parent Coach: Jennifer Watanabe


Helping your toddler handle transitionsQ: My 2-year-old is having a very tough time with transitions — or should I say, I'm having a tough time with how my 2-year-old handles transitions — putting on clothes, diaper changes, leaving home, returning home. I know it's never easy, and I practice many of the strategies you read about, but none of them really seem to help avert meltdowns. Other ideas? Should we just grin and get through it? Should I give myself some time-outs?

A: As you have discovered, young children commonly have a difficult time with transitions. In many ways it is beyond their capacity to understand that they have to stop what they are doing. As the adult in the equation, we compound the issue when we then ask/ demand that the child do something else — that is, what we want them to do. Switching gears from their task to the parent's task is confusing and often leads to that perennial child query: Why? 

If someone asked or demanded you to suspend your activity, or scooped you up as you were busily engaged in work or leisure, you would probably be resistant too! A young child has no other way to convey his dissatisfaction, lack of understanding, or feeling of powerlessness about what is happening to him than to physically resist and melt down. Even if your young child is verbal, he still does not have power to alter your plans.

So, what can you do to make transitions easier for your son?

Verbal preparation: Set expectations around the events of the day — even if he does not grasp all that you tell him, he will grow into more understanding.

When you have to stop an activity: Count together, letting him know how many more times he can do a certain activity rather than how much more time he has to do an activity. Communicate with your son in a way that is relevant to him: “Zoom down the freeway (train track) with your car (train) 10 more times!” or “Look at five more pages in your book before you put it in your bag — we can take the book with us in the car.” Count together out loud in a friendly voice.

Changing diapers: Diaper changes can be especially challenging since your son may not understand why his diaper needs to be changed! During a calm time, you can talk with your son about the process of changing diapers. You may try asking your son what he would like do during the diaper change. Does he want a book to look at? Or a special toy to hold?

Getting dressed: It may be easier to get your son ready for the day when he first wakes up if that is a time when he is the most compliant (sleepy and relaxed). You might also try waiting to get your son dressed until after you have had the car ride — he might be more ready or willing to get his clothes on as you near your destination. Putting shoes on in the car while the child is buckled in the car seat may eliminate the battle over the shoes!

Giving warnings: Try to make warnings as meaningful for your son as possible. Young children do not have a strong conception of time, as one example. Kids don’t care if they are “late,” but they do care if they miss “circle time” with the parachute at preschool.

Validate your child’s feelings: “Yes, I can see that it is disappointing to stop your play. Let’s be sad together for a couple of minutes, and then we will get up and get ready to ride in the car.” Young children may want to be sad for longer than two minutes, but by providing your child some structure around sad times you are teaching him how to work through emotions and land on the other side — by naming, validating, and being your son’s supporter during the tough times of his day. This approach will serve you well as your child grows up. Foster the feeling with your son that you can “do this together” — be his ally during his difficult transitions.

Additional resource: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, by John Gottman, Ph.D.

Jennifer WatanabeJennifer Watanabe is the parent coach at Youth Eastside Services (YES). She teaches Positive Discipline classes and provides individual parent coaching. As a Certified Parent Coach, she has vast experience teaching parenting classes, using research-based information on child development, temperament, discipline, and emotion management. She specializes in helping parents who are longing for a better relationship with their children and who need a more effective way to discipline. Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer understands first-hand the issues parents face in our community.

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