3 Tips for Helping Children Adjust to Transitions

As adults, some of us like to have plans so we know what to expect and others like to fly by the seat of our pants and go with the flow hour by the hour. Either way, research has shown that all humans need some level of routine in their life. This may be waking up to music, drinking coffee, working out, going to work, winding down doing yoga or reading a book.  Most people have a sequence of events that they do daily that helps them feel regulated, safe, and in control of their day.  

As a Certified Child Life Specialist, I spent many of my years learning about how developing children cope with stressors so that I could properly assist and support children experiencing challenging or life-threatening events to adapt. For children, routine and consistency are super important. When they are admitted to a hospital or have an unexpected illness or injury, that consistency and routine is changed instantly.  Studies have shown and I have seen that routine and consistency with minimal transitions help children to have a sense of normalcy because they can predict what is to come. Life happens though and we know that transitions will inevitably happen.  Small transitions for a child may be some of the following: moving from screen time to bath time, finishing homework before playing with friends, or shifting from eating on the couch to eating together at a table with family. Larger transitions may be going from in-person school to virtual school, having family all working together in one home when they used to be in separate spaces, or going from one home to the other during a divorce process. No matter the size of the transitions, these 3 tips with tangible examples are all potentially beneficial ways to help young children adjust.  

1. Verbal preparation comes first, then language cues:

Example: Dad walks over and takes the Ipad away from the 3 year-old son in order to get out of the car to eat lunch. The son has a complete meltdown with tears, screaming, and crying. How could this have been modified?

Dad: Son, we are about 5 minutes away from the restaurant where we are going to have lunch. When we get there, we will turn your show off the Ipad before we go in to eat? (Then, when stopped at the restaurant before getting the son out of the car)

Dad: Ok, son, first we are going to turn the ipad off, then we are going to eat lunch. When we get back after lunch, you can finish watching your show. 

It is helpful for children to have time to think about and process transitions so giving verbal preparation with a tangible amount of time helpful. Using “first, then” language helps children understand sequence and what is coming now and later. 

2. Time to prepare for transition

As mentioned above, giving children time to transition with verbal preparation is helpful. Combining that with a visible time reminder can be even better. 

Mother: In 3 minutes, it will be time to clean up the blocks and get undressed for bath time. 

Be sure to have a visible timer that children can either hear clicking or see the numbers on the front panel. A timer with an audible ring or beep can help children understand it is time to transition. 

Child: I do not want to take a bath (as he sees the timer begin to count down the time).

Mother: The timer has not beeped yet so you still have 2 minutes to clean up before time to get in the bath. (timer rings)

Mother: What did I hear?  Did you hear that?  Your timer went off, reminding you to get undressed and get in the bath.  Let’s go!  Can you help me squirt some bubble bath into the water to make you some bubbles?

Creating a visible schedule can also help children see what is first and what is coming next in their day. This does not have to be an exact time schedule but can be more of a block of time so that the child sees: first they eat breakfast, then they have free play, next they go to the park, and then they take a nap, etc. 

3. Acknowledge feelings and allow space for children to safely problem solve

Children may not like transitions and will express themselves in a variety of ways. Some children will pout, throw things, yell, scream, cry, throw tantrums, hide, or even push or hit. It is important to maintain consistent and safe boundaries for children with their bodies and those of the adults around them. It is appropriate to tell a child that it is ok if they have feelings and want to express them but it is not ok to hurt themselves or other people around them while doing so. Wording for this may appear as:

Parent:  I see that you have tears coming down your face and you seem very angry as you are swinging your fists at me. I cannot allow you to hurt me.  Your hands are to be kept to yourself.  What do you think will help you to be less mad right now?

If they do answer with some solutions, a parent can guide them to help make that solution happen if appropriate. If they do not have a solution, a parent can offer them ‘would you like to give yourself a big hug with your arms and take a deep breath while blowing out to the count of three’?  If that does not work, then you may ask the child if they need a hug to help them feel safe or redirect their angry feelings to an inanimate object such as a pillow to push on or punch when angry. Then, when de-escalated, teach them how to take deep breaths and reduce their anger without using any physical actions towards things or others. 

Another example would be a child who is throwing their belongings or begins to act out in various ways before it is their weekend to go to their other parents house. Children living in separate homes who transition spaces every other weekend, or however it is written in the parenting plan, can have challenging behaviors prior to those transitions. Acknowledging their feelings and allowing them to problem solve may look like this:

Parent: I see that you are rolling your eyes and not packing your clothes to go to your (dad’s/mom’s house). What do you find is difficult about that or what would you like to share about how that makes you feel to go to (dad’s/mom’s) house every other weekend? The child may state that they do not like to take clothes or their own toys each time. They may explain how they do not have their own space or have to share when at the other home with step-siblings. Some solutions to transitioning to and from two homes may be brainstorming how some clothes and toys can stay at the other parents home so they are there consistently and do not have to be carried back and forth. It may also be creating standard expectations that apply to both homes so that the child knows what their rules are at each place and boundaries are the same.  

The concept behind these three tips can be applied to many transitions in a child’s life. The goal is not for children to be guarded from all of life’s challenges but instead to be able to experience them and come up with healthy ways to cope with them, process their own feelings, and brainstorm solutions. This will create resiliency in them and prepare them for hardships they may encounter later in life. Thanks for giving these tips a try and feel free to comment below on any helpful tips you have to share that have worked for you and your child when adjusting to transitions. 

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