Transition Your Toddler Without Tears

Transitioning is a huge concern for parents and educators of toddlers, both for the typically developing and special needs kids.  Struggling to get their child to leave the playground, come to the dinner table, or enter/leave the tub are very high priority concerns for a lot of the parents I meet as an occupational therapist.  Educators and therapists refer to these struggles as difficulties with transitioning.  Dr. Harvey Karp’s fabulous Happiest Toddler on the Block program has a unique perspective on the experience of transitioning, and some equally unique strategies.

Toddlers’ brains aren’t wired to switch focus quickly once they are fully engaged in something, especially something that they enjoy.  They have no real sense of time, so saying that you need time to run to the store or library has no meaning to them.  There is always more time in toddler land.  Toddlers with spirited temperaments may see 5 trucks in the sandbox, and decide that they will be playing with all of them.  Leaving after only playing with 3 is going to seem like leaving before the main course is served; he’s been cheated!  Sometimes imagining having fun at home while at the playground is impossible for the concrete toddler brain; toddlers need an actual toy in your hand that is his “transition object” to hold while leaving the playground and getting into the car.

One of the most common transitioning techniques suggested in behavior management books is to give 5-minute and 1-minute warnings.  This can work well with an easy child with good language skills, a child who simply needs a bit of advance notice.  If your child really struggles with ending something fun and moving on, this suggestion is often pointless advice.  Your child still cries.  Sometimes they cry more because they don’t understand that you are giving a warning, not making an announcement of immediate departure.  Sometimes they cry because they feel the need to protest what is clearly your choice, not theirs.  They haven’t been consulted.

The Happiest Toddler techniques of “win-win compromise”, “kind ignoring”, “toddler-ese communication”  and “The Fast Food Rule” can really help you here.  Announce firmly and warmly that you will be leaving the playground soon.  Ask if your child wants to leave in one minute or two minutes.  If your child isn’t capable of understanding that two is more than one, you need a different approach.  That could be ” Go now or more play?”.  Your child may respond “more!!!” and keep digging in the sandbox.  Your response is something like “OK, you win! A teeny tiny bit more play then home”.  This may be enough communication and negotiation for your child; he can comprehend that you know he wants to stay.

If you can, start clearing away all the fun toys, maybe putting them in a box or behind you.  Your child will see less fun available and see you cleaning up.  All these are signals that the fun is ending and that you mean business.  If you receive a bit of whining or throwing of a toy in protest, rephrase your original statement, “teeny bit more play then home” and even use a little of the kind ignoring technique (where you briefly don’t make eye contact and turn slightly away from the protestor while you tidy up).  You aren’t rejecting him, but you are sending the message that minor defiance is not impressing you or changing your mind.

If whining or tantrums begin after you announce that it is time to leave, you can pull out the Fast Food Rule.  Remember, from my January 2015 blog post on Tantrums and Sympathetic Reframing?  The biggest problem with using the 1 and 5-minute warning technique with temperamental toddlers is that it presents a plan to your rigid or touchy toddler before laying the communication groundwork.  Such a child might even complain or explode a bit more with those warnings, because laying out a plan before acknowledging his point of view seems like being mis-understood and dis-respected!   Telling him how much fun he will have at home, how tired you are of all this whining, how he did everything he likes already, or threatening consequences isn’t going to work until your child is certain that you know what he wants.  Which is to stay at the sandbox!!

To use the Fast Food Rule here, you are going to use the toddler-ese language format of short phrases, repetition, and reflect 1/3rd of his emotional tone/gestures/facial expressions .  Tell him what you think he is saying to you by repeating:  “you say “No GO, stay and PLAY!!!”a few times.   Your child will probably make some eye contact, maybe even stop crying and nod.  He gets it that YOU get it.  You are not agreeing with him, just confirming his message.  Now you can commiserate, offer that transition toy, remind him what fun comes next, etc.  This can dial down or eliminate a tantrum in most cases.  Better yet, it teaches a bit of negotiation, mutual respect, and uses emotional warmth, firm limits and understanding of the language and emotional needs of toddlers.

When won’t it work like a charm?  Complete over-exhaustion, hunger, illness, or a major life change like a new sibling.  Sometimes toddlers are at the ends of their ropes too.  But the garden-variety whining and dawdling can be completely evaporated by this approach, and many erupting tantrums can be nipped before they get going.

If you think this is way more work than just dragging a screaming child to the car, try this.  Close your eyes and imagine the draining feeling inside you as you fight him into the carseat and dodge the sandy sneakers being thrown at your head.  Everybody loses, everybody feels oppressed.  Some toddlers can bring this fight into the house and not even nap, totally disrupting the rest of the day and the night.  Just envisioning this scenario may make you motivated to try this new strategy.

It takes a long time for the toddler brain to become good at advance warnings, shift emotional and attentional gears, and communicate well.  Using the Happiest Toddler techniques can build those skills and get you out of the playground faster and with fewer tears!

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