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The Trouble With Transitions

Why they are hard for some kids and how to help.

Key points

  • Transitions are hard for many kids, even when they are moving onto an activity they love.
  • Moving from one thing to another requires shifting their energy and focus, which can feel overwhelming.
  • Managing transitions requires empathy and a plan to help them move through the transition calmly and lovingly.

My four-year-old was very hesitant when I signed her up for gymnastics class. After a few sessions, she started to join in and now she LOVES it. I can’t get her out of there when class is over. But every week, when it’s time to go back, she fights tooth and nail, insisting she doesn’t want to go. It’s like Groundhog’s Day. I just don’t get it.

This phenomenon is one that many parents I work with find confounding and frustrating, understandably. Where is the learning curve? ⁠

As I help parents do the detective work to figure out the root cause of why their kids react this way, in most cases the challenge is making the transition, rather than their feelings about the activity. Once the child is engaged in the experience, they love it—whether it is school, dance class, jujitsu, art, or going to the playground. As one mom reported just earlier today: “This weekend we told Bodie (5) that we were going to the playground to meet some friends. He melted down, screaming that he wasn’t going; that he hates the playground, and he hates the children we were meeting there. We held firm and got him there, which was really, really hard and uncomfortable. But within minutes he was having the best time playing with the child he had claimed to detest just minutes earlier."

Why Are Transitions So Hard?

Transitions can be challenging for kids, especially those who are highly sensitive. Moving from one thing to another requires shifting their energy, which is often intensely focused on something else (which might be just vegetating at home in their comfort zone.) The transition can be taxing and feel overwhelming, triggering them into discomfort, which overrides their memory about how much they love the activity they are going to. ⁠

This puts parents in a real quandary. It feels wrong to force a child to do something that isn’t a “have-to”, like brushing teeth or staying in bed at night. But over and over, parents report that their children are thriving in these activities that are edifying and have major benefits.

What You Can Do

Reflective discussion: In a quiet moment, you might say something like: "I was confused about why you got upset when it was time to go to gymnastics class because you love it so much when you're there. Then I realized that what's hard is moving from one thing to another. I totally get that. When it's time to move from home to an activity, the discomfort you feel takes over your brain and you're not remembering or thinking about how much you like gymnastics/school/swimming."⁠

Once you have tuned into them and shown you understand, and aren't trying to talk them out of their feelings, children are often open to brainstorming what might help them make the transition.⁠ Strategies that I find work best are those that engage the child’s attention in a positive way before the transition needs to be made. Some examples that have worked for families include:

  • Having a special audiobook that the child starts listening to before it’s time to make the transition, so they are engaged and focused on it when it’s time to get into the car. Then they continue listening in the car on the way to the activity.
  • Having your child choose a book to read together that you start before you leave for the activity. You read it halfway through, put a bookmark where you leave off, and finish it when you get back home. This also provides a nice bookend.

Transition time: When the time for the transition is approaching, give your child advance notice and see if they are open to using one of the tools you have brainstormed about to ease making this change. If they are able to use a tool—awesome.

But keep in mind that even when you have had a great conversation with your child about making transitions easier—and you've come up with some brilliant coping strategies and they seem all in—when it’s actually time to go to the activity, many children still fall apart. If that happens, remember: less is more. Resist the temptation to try to rationalize with your child at a time when they are in an irrational state; for example, avoid trying to remind them of how much they love the activity you are heading to. For the kids I work with, this just serves as fodder for defiance—a common reaction to being told how to feel. They refute all of your efforts to convince them to be happy about the transition, to the tune of: “I HATE jujitsu! I don’t know why you signed me up!”

Instead, show validation and have a plan for how you will help them move along: "I know it's hard to leave when you are so cozy at home. But it’s time to go to gymnastics. ⁠You can get into the car on your own or I will be a helper. Which option would you like for getting into the car?”

Once children see that you are not going to try to convince them to cooperate or to be happy about the plan, that you are clear that going to the activity is a “have-to”, not a negotiation, and, that you have a plan to move them along, they will ultimately adapt.⁠

More from Claire Lerner LCSW-C
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