Steps to successfully conquer your child’s transitional stress.
Our days are made up of transitions from one activity to the next. Most children and adults ride the daily waves of shifts, adjustments, and changes smoothly. But for some kids, moving from “now to next” can be jarring, especially those with anxiety, ADHD, or autism (or all of these).
Shifting from home to school, and then school to home can be particularly hard. Some parents report that the journey home from school is the rockiest part of the day. Minor disappointments like the wrong snack or no snack, or a different route home can ignite intense tantrums, seat kicking, and projectiles from the back of the car.
What Causes This Stress?
In most cases, I believe the stress is related to the temporary dysregulation that happens when we shift from doing one thing and start the next thing. Others struggle with transitions due to executive function problems. (Our executive functions include planning, shifting thought and attention, organization, and self-control). Executive function problems are associated with ADHD, anxiety, and autism.
Be Patient And Validate
There are many ways parents can support children to make smoother transitions. However, the first task is to be patient and calm. It is legitimately harder for some people to stop doing one thing and start doing something else. This is especially true if the shift involves moving away from a satisfying place or activity.
Accept that your child is struggling and let him know you understand. This is called validation. Say something like, “I know change is hard for you. Can you tell me what you’re thinking or feeling about it?” It helps to give the child a chance to stop and think. Make sure to model “feelings words” regularly to build the child’s emotional vocabulary.
Discuss Their Routine
In addition to talking about feelings and modeling calmness, spend time discussing the daily routine. Build in snuggle time and talks about their daily routine. For some kids, a visual schedule of the day is helpful. This can be referred to frequently to help the child understand the sequence of events.
During the mornings and evenings at home, parents need to be tuned in and not distracted. Remember, you are directing the show. Praise the child for following the routine; actively encourage cooperation and success. Another helpful strategy is to keep the mood upbeat. Make up a song as a cue to what is happening “now and next.”
Use Visual Timers
Visual timers that define how long an event will last can also be settling. Don’t forget the verbal countdown to remind the child that the clock is ticking. For example, start the countdown about five minutes before leaving the park. Then every two minutes, remind her that you will be going soon. And then leave as planned! For the timer to be helpful, it must be obeyed.
Consistency of daily schedules and routines are the keys to smoother transitions, but things come up. If there will be an unexpected change in the routine or schedule, let the child know. Validate the child’s concerns or distress about such adjustments. Remind them that this is an opportunity to practice brave and flexible thinking. Telling your child about unexpected events increases trust and reduces anxiety. Highly anxious children may need to practice skills like self-talk (“I can handle this”), breathing, or other coping tools.
Remember that difficulty with transitions is not defiance. It is anxiety and discomfort. Parents are most helpful when they can be consistent, calm, and supportive with their children. Avoid punishments, but do provide rewards (constructive bribery) for brave thinking and coping skills. With practice, transitions can become more manageable.
Dr. Pat Blackwell is a licensed psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years. See her website for more information and her blog: patblackwellphd.com.