Helping Young Children with Transitions

We’ve all been there. You have someplace to go and your child doesn’t want to leave. Welcome. The good news is: you have lots of choices of how to react. The bad news is: you have lots of choices of how to react.

Hypothetically Speaking

Keep the end goal in mind – a loving, respectful, lifelong relationship!

There’s always bribery, tricking, yelling, grabbing, and racing (desperate times…) but let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, you genuinely care about your child, and you want to create the foundation of a lifelong relationship based on genuine trust, honest communication, and mutual respect. You have some sense of understanding that your little one is thoroughly enjoying her time where you are, is acting developmentally appropriately, and is just learning how to handle emotions and communicate effectively in all aspects of her life – including transitions.

Perhaps you want to guide and educate your child, rather than punish or train him. You accept that teaching is a major part of your role as a parent and you begrudgingly understand that, while these moments are exhausting and downright annoying at times, they are opportunities for learning. It makes sense to you that if you take the time now to help your child work through this, it will improve your relationship and help your child work through inevitable similar scenarios in his life.

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In that case, I have a little formula for you! Like any parenting formula, it won’t work every time (that minor detail that we are humans), but it will serve as an example of how you and your child can work together through honest communication to solve any problem you encounter:

  1. Begin by engaging a bit with your child if possible. It will be much easier for your little one to pay attention to your desires if you paid similar attention to the mountain he was creating in the sand.

  2. When you have ten minutes until you have to leave, calmly tell your child you will have to be going soon. Tell him briefly and calmly what you will be doing next (sell it a bit) and briefly why you have to do it.

  3. Offer him a choice of his final activity.

  4. Then, when you really have five minutes to spare (you will be calmer that way), matter-of-factly state “OK it’s time to go, let’s go _______!” (fill in the blank with whatever you will be doing).

  5. If he comes along: a. thank your lucky stars or whatever spiritual deity you believe in b. thank him. (modeling gratitude is the best way to teach young children gratitude)(wait,… it’s the best way to teach children anything).

  6. If he protests vehemently, meet it directly. Calmly explain that we don’t have to act like that. Tell him that you always listen to each other. Genuinely empathize with him and acknowledge his feelings. Then, nonchalantly reiterate the reason you have to leave, and assure him he can come back if he asks you nicely. Move the attention to the next activity.

  7. If he is still protesting, tell him calmly he doesn’t ever have to throw a fit (use your own language), and that he can always talk to you. Tell him if he really wants to stay, he can ask nicely for two more minutes. (This is not “giving in.” This is teaching how human beings can communicate and work things out by listening and expressing themselves respectfully.) You will want to stick to the two-minute agreement and then move along.

    8. If it’s still not working, (as one philosopher once espoused “s**t happens.” Key for you to not get worked up – i.e., fuel the fire with added frustration. Keep in mind these moments are naturally challenging for these little guys. The more you TEACH how to work through these moments, the less they will occur), tell him you have to go and he can either walk with you or you will have to pick him up.

    9. Pick him up calmly and talk about the next step.

    10. Review it later, when you have a calmer moment. Talk about “next time.”

One warning about warnings- they can be overdone. I once heard a mom tell her children emphatically they “only had a half an hour left to play.” Talk about pressure. I was in an adjacent room and got nervous. Only half an hour? A child can construct the Himalayas out of sand in half an hour.

One other side note: tune out other people watching. They will only judge if you: a. abuse your child or b. let him walk all over you. Otherwise, they are on your side – especially if you are calmly and clearly stating the facts and drawing the line.

Pot of Gold

OK there’s your “little” formula. (I’m exhausted from typing it – let alone doing it). Trust me, the more you get used to communicating with your child in this way – respectfully expressing and genuinely listening – the less conflicts and drama you will have (save it for NCIS and American Idol). Of course, there will be times when you need to just do whatever you can to get to the next step asap. But keep the end-goal in mind: a loving and respectful lifelong relationship. We’re gonna get there…step by step.

2 Comments

  1. M. Rubio

    Another gem from Coach Tom! It is easier to ‘let well enough alone’ and do nothing (e.g., when your child is quietly and calmly engaged only with items specifically designated for them), but we are quick (as parents) to invest a lot of energy in scolding and redirecting the moment exploration goes too far or the noise is too much. In essence, we provide a stronger response to unwanted behavior and it appears children are about absolute value. So, while we are thinking we’ve administered some old-fashioned discipline, the unwanted behavior continues and the child now knows how to get your truly, undivided attention, exhibiting that unwanted behavior with great certainty that mom and/or dad will respond immediately. Save your energy for play and reacting to desirable behavior, systematically decreasing unwanted behavior as your child discerns the diminishing pay-off of such behavior. “PUT ME IN COACH, I’M READY TO PLAY!”

  2. I love this.

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