Why children find it so hard to transition

Updated: Mar 18

  • Your child is playing in his room and you announce that it’s dinnertime and he immediately lays on the ground and has a meltdown.

  • You’re in the playground and it takes 30-40 minutes to get your son in the stroller to leave.

  • It’s bedtime and your daughter’s delay tactics last almost an hour before you get her to her room.

Why is it SO (oooooooo) hard for children to follow the schedule, to do what you need, to go with the flow? Why on earth do they have absolutely zero chill? Because transitions are hard for children. These common scenarios are transitions from one activity to the other. They find it very difficult to shift from one thing to the next. As an adult, you find it easy to just stop what you’re doing and go do something else, but you had decades of practice! Yes, it’s true - you honed your chill. Children have had only a year or two of understanding what transitions mean. And so far, they’ve discovered that if they try real hard, the transition might not even happen, or if it does, they can buy themselves some time to slow it down. Smart buggers!

Basically, transitions between activities are hard for children because:

  • Feelings!!! Children operate mostly from feelings from 0 to 6 years old. There’s no logic here, people.

  • Someone else is telling them to do it and they hate losing power over their lives.

  • They live for the moment. When they are focused on doing one thing, it becomes everything.

  • They have no real concept of time, so to ask them to give up this fun thing they are doing at this exact moment in order to do something in the future is beyond them.

So how do we help them with transitions? How do we help them cope with feelings that come up when you ask them to stop one activity for another? Let’s take apart these feelings they’re are having and come up with possible solutions:

  1. Work with the most important factor of relationship with children - oh yeah, it’s feelings!

How do we work with their feelings?

  1. Recognize and label them: “I see that you’re upset.”

  2. Identify their thoughts: “Is it because you’re not ready to leave the playground?”

  3. Empathize: “I know it’s hard to leave the playground.”

  4. Affirm: “But we’ve been here awhile and now it’s time to go.”

1. Give them the power. Children hate losing power over their lives. You know that. And it’s just natural - don’t you? If someone took away your choice of what to do right now, you would hate it too. So with a few words, give them the power. How?

  1. After recognizing their feelings, you can give them more time: “I see that you’re upset about leaving, so would you like to play for 10 more minutes?” They will probably agree (and they have no idea how long 10 minutes is, so they’ll likely stop sooner).

  2. If not, then right before the 10 minutes ends, warn them so they’re prepared: “In 10 minutes, we will be leaving the playground.

  3. If they resist, you can say something like: “That is what you agreed to, it’s been 10 minutes. And we have to keep our agreements to each other, right?

  4. If there is still more resistance, say: “We have to go so do you want to walk to your stroller, or do you want me to take you?” So you've removed all options of staying or going, but they still have power to go to the stroller. Now they have no choice but to leave, it’s just the way they are leaving that they have control over. This can be adapted at home with: “Do you want to walk to the dining room or should I take you?

2. Help them with the concept of time. They are so zen (must be nice) that they live in the moment. No other moment exists. So help them with that delusion - or uhh, reality. You can:

  1. Prepare them before you go to the playground. You can use your watch as a prop: “So we will play from 2:00 to 2:30. See the watch? When the number on the right says 30, we will have to leave the playground, OK?And make sure that they say, “OK.”

  2. Have them participate in keeping time: “Dinner will be in 30 minutes. Let’s use a timer to help us remember, OK?” Show them the timer mode in your phone and even have them press the start button. Then when it sounds, have them hear the sound. “Oh, it’s been 30 minutes so it’s time for dinner.” This also gives them the feeling that they have control and it becomes a moment between them and the timer, and not you and them. So you stop being the bad guy - blame the little machine! If they resist, just say “You pressed the button and you knew it was going to be 30 minutes.” or “ Sorry, the timer says it's been 30 minutes, so we have to get ready for dinner.”

For further reading, here’s an article from the NAEYC on this topic.

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