by Jenni Watts Evans, 7/16/18

How’s your day going? Ever heard someone say, “The devil is in the details”? For parents – and teachers – the day can be made or broken when we are paying the least attention: during transitions. Even if you have had a great time playing at the park and you are headed home to your child’s favorite dinner, a car seat battle can make the whole day feel like a failure.

WHY? For young children, the time between activities IS another activity. It involves several skills still under construction in their young brains – like waiting and delayed gratification, following directions, and the flexibility necessary to let go of the present as quickly as an adult and shift to the next step. Even older children may get triggered by the stress of switching gears, disengaging from current activities, and anticipating what’s next.

Instead of finding the quickest way from point A (the sofa), to point B (the bed), use transitions as opportunities to teach, engage, and shape the mood of the day – or night. Here are some tricks for getting the most out of these moments.

Routine: Knowing what to expect is very important, especially for toddlers and preschoolers. Depending on your child’s temperament, it can be the tipping point. Create consistent daily routines including transitions that are predictable and easy to remember. When preparing to leave the house, make sure you’re ready before you go through the final steps with your child – shoes on, grab your lovey/car toy/water bottle, pick the song for the car ride, hop in the car seat, high five.

This need for routine extends to the need for more control. Again, some people have more control issues than others. This can translate into habits that look compulsive, such as lining up food instead of eating it, needing to sit in a particular spot, or demanding specific toys or clothes or lights on. By sharing the control and giving your child a role in creating routines and transition you can avoid some power struggles.

Preparation: Help children anticipate transitions by giving warnings – one or two – that are helpful, not threatening. Instead of “You have 3 more minutes before it’s time to pick up,” try “In 3 minutes we’ll be ready for lunch so you have time for one more thing.” Then, “Would you like me to help with clean up or just sing the song for you?”

It is also helpful to start the day – even the week - with a review of what to expect. Take special care to mention any changes to the routine to minimize surprises. Create age-appropriate charts and calendars for children who need the extra prop to stay on top of what to expect and what you expect from them.

Motivation: Balance the good news with the bad news, “In 5 minutes we have to leave the park so we can go home and make macaroni and cheese.” Or, “It’s time to go.  Are you ready for some juice/cool water/grapes/air conditioning/to make a picture for Mommy…” – you get the idea. Bribery is not likely to work because children learn to weigh in their minds whether or not the payoff is worth it. Using motivation helps children learn to look forward to the next good thing that will happen. Adults do it all the time! “A shower is going to feel so good after I finish this run.” Or, “If I stay calm through this bedtime routine she will stay in bed and fall asleep instead of coming out to ask for water/another story/a unicorn.”

Finally, the stress of transitions is the time to call upon your strongest parenting tools. If you like to sing, make a song for everything – from cleaning up to buckling the seatbelt. Beware of the battles, especially those that are not worth it or are unwinnable, like, “You are not getting up until you eat all of your        .” Why ruin the rest of the night over a couple grams of protein when you can feed it to her in scrambled eggs the next morning? Instead of gearing up for a fight, save the most tempting rituals for the toughest times; “Let’s get these teeth brushed so I can give you a piggy back ride to bed!”

If the devil is in those details, so are most of the opportunities to connect and communicate, building and strengthening the foundations of a strong relationship. And your relationship IS your most powerful parenting tool.


Jenni Watts Evans is a parent educator and assistant director at The Parenting Center at Children's Hospital. For more information and to learn about the parenting groups and classes available, call 504.896.9591, visit or email [email protected].


Looking for more parenting tips? Read the 'Common Signs of Stress and Helpful Responses.'

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