Let me tell you a story about a time we realized we needed some transition strategies for toddlers–specifically, our little guy, Kai.
Streams of sunlight filtered through the trees in shades of orange and pink as a cooling breeze fell softly over the playground. The shouts of happy children reached upward, mingling with the warm evening air.
It was my husband’s difficult task at this moment to break the news to our son Kai that it was time to go home. For the first time in his little life, Kai burst into tears and shouts of protest.
We’ve all been there.
Creating Transition Strategies to Prevent Meltdowns
When I had Kai, my first baby, I was blissfully clueless about what life with a toddler would be like. I didn’t have a plan for moments like these. But thankfully, my son taught me everything I needed to know, and honestly, he was pretty patient with me.
There were plenty of things that did not come naturally to me (sleep training!), but one of the things that did was discovering a few strategies for transitions from one fun activity to another less-fun activity.
So here are a few methods I use for my kids when it comes time to transition into something that isn’t opening birthday presents or riding a pony.
Ten *Tested* Transition Strategies for Toddlers and Preschoolers
1. Set Expectations
Run through what’s coming up, especially if it’s something tantrum-provoking, and what you expect from your little guy.
Before you head to story time at the library, for example, remind your child of what will happen. “We’ll have time to play, then go in the room for a story and a craft, and then we’ll pick out books together!” Then talk about how you expect him to behave; like sitting down during the story and sharing toys during playtime.
2. Practice a Calm Response at Home
When Kai has been showing a bit of trouble with a particular transition, like coming inside after playing, we practice right before we even head out the door. I ask him, “What will you say when mommy says it’s time to come in?” And he smiles and says, “OKAY!”
The crazy thing is that most of the time it sticks. He remembers what he was supposed to say when the Moment of Truth comes and actually says it and comes inside.
3. Give Warning
I like to give gentle reminders that it’s almost time to go (or to move on to something else). Once Kai got old enough, I started pointing out the five-minute mark and the one-minute mark.
With my one-year-old, I tell her it’s “almost time” to go to bed. She understands me completely. She doesn’t like it, but she understands it.
4. Offer Choices
Behind almost every tantrum is a loss of a sense of control. It’s important even for little ones to feel like they have some sort of power over their destiny.
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Ask your child, “do you want to carry your books to the counter, or do you want me to?” Or how about, “Do you want to walk to the car or hop like a bunny to the car?” (holding hands is non-negotiable). You could try something like, “Do you want to wear your fire truck PJs or your raccoon PJs tonight?”
You get the idea…just giving your child some sort of control eases the transition a lot.
5. Bring a Small Toy
My favorite transition strategy for toddlers is to bring a small toy with me in my diaper bag. When it’s time for Kai to stop playing with toys at the library and go pick out books with me, I’d pull out the toy for the first time and tell him, “Look! Cowboy’s here! He’s never seen the library. Let’s show him the books!” Kai’s face would light up and he’d grab his little cowboy and enthusiastically show him the books.
You can try this with almost anything. Your child’s toy (we like to use Little People for outings!) might want to see where you parked the car and how your little guy can climb in his car seat. Maybe the toy is really wondering if your kiddo is big enough to help set the spoons on the table, or where the other toys go when they are put away.
This approach taps into a child’s aptitude for teaching. Most little ones love to teach because it builds up their confidence and makes them the expert. But what I love about it is that it helps my son learn something new. Every time he shows his toy what we’re doing next, he becomes the one in charge of the transition, not me. And you gotta love that!
6. Tell Stories
This little method has saved me so many times, particularly when I’m trying to get my son to go to the bathroom before we leave the house. If I’m sensing some resistance, I start telling a story…
“Once upon a time, there was a raccoon named Sniffy. Sniffy lived in the forest with his mommy and daddy and sister. One day–OH, I’ll finish the story once you start walking toward the potty and go–One day…” He moves toward the potty, so I keep talking as long as he’s doing what I’ve asked.
Make it a silly story (this one was about how the raccoon found some pizza and brought it home), maybe something a little familiar or based on a book they love. At Christmastime, I told him the story of Rudolph a LOT.
Instead of engaging in any battles your toddler starts, try to ignore the whining or protesting and tell a bit of the story to get their attention, stopping only if they really aren’t making any effort to do what you’re asking.
More Reading on Parenting Preschoolers and Toddlers
7. Look on the Bright Side
I have a little phrase that has become a key part of moving on…it’s:
Something fun is always around the corner!
Because going to bed means reading stories together, getting in the car means looking for trucks on the road, cleaning up his room means we’ll see daddy soon…basically this is how we look on the bright side of any task that’s difficult for him. Remind your kiddo that there’s always something fun involved in what’s happening next.
8. Offer Praise & Rewards
After Kai has done something that’s a little tough without any fussing, I make a big deal out of it. Maybe I’ll pull out a really fun toy or let him have chocolate-covered almonds for a snack, and I always tell daddy about it in front of Kai so that he knows how proud we both are. I’m not one for bribing him in the moment, just rewarding good behavior after I’ve seen it happen.
9. Act it Out
When you’re trying something new, act out what your child can expect beforehand. Weeks before Kai went to preschool for the first time, we played preschool and practiced show and tell, using his stuffed animals as other students.
We also read books about going to preschool and watched a few Daniel Tiger episodes on the subject. We did this for church situations, spending the night at a different place, even eating at a restaurant. Make sure you play out not just the activity, but the transitions surrounding it.
10. Get Into a Routine and Stick with It
Once you start doing something a little challenging, try not to change your routine. My husband and I thought our son might have a hard time with going to his preschool class at church, but he surprised us by never complaining and bravely going without protesting each time.
Well, after we attended our Christmas Eve service as a family, he started requesting to sit with us during church. We had to learn that doing this only meant he’d have a harder time with going back to his pre-k class later on.
It was pretty easy to get his expectations in the right place, but it was a great reminder. Once you’re in a groove, stick with it as best as you can!
There isn’t a preschooler parent on earth that hasn’t faced a dreaded tantrum due to moving along, and I’m no exception. But there is hope for us! I think when we really pay attention to helping them through the tough things in life, our kids handle it so much better.
I’d suggest not just trying one or two of these, but using lots of them consistently until your kiddo is calmer. You and your child will be so much happier…hopefully in public…every time. A mama can dream!