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How to Help Your Preschooler with Transitions

Does your little one struggle to leave playdates? These 5 tips will equip you with the tools needed to help your preschooler with transitions.

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You know the scenario: you and your little one have had a lovely time at a friend’s house, birthday party, or indoor play gym. But now it is time to leave. You dread the moment you will announce, “Time to go!” because you know what comes next. 

First it starts small – he ignores you. Then he actively avoids you. Then he runs from you. Next thing you know, you are in the midst of a WWE Smackdown, trying to get his shoes and coat on. Eventually you give up, grab the coat and shoes, sling your little flailing guy up on your hip like a roll of carpet, and leave. You then have to wrestle him into his car seat all while trying to ignore the harsh judgy looks from passers-by. By the time you sit in the driver’s seat, you have burned 200 calories, grown 10 more gray hairs, and maybe ruined your chances of being asked back to the place from which you were leaving.

So what is the solution? While you might feel that the only viable option is to stay home for the remainder of his childhood, there is another way. It will require some time, planning, and effort, but it will work. Here are 5 things you can do before you even get to the destination to help the departure go smoothly.

(Please note that these tips are not intended for children with sensory processing issues. If you suspect your child has sensory issues, click here for tips on dealing with meltdowns during transitions.)

1) Have an empathetic discussion about leaving before you arrive

Many parents would like to avoid this conversation. They hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, things will be different this time. But let’s be realistic. It won’t be different unless you do something different. 

For an opener, you can say to your son, “Boy, the last time we had to leave Jimmy’s house it didn’t go so well, did it? I know how hard it is to leave when you are having so much fun!” Then ask your child how he feels about leaving places (help him identify his feelings if he has trouble). Talk about how he feels about a lot of different transitions. You can even be a bit playful, and ask if he has a hard time leaving the doctor’s office after a shot. Then say with warm confidence, “Today, we are going to work together so that we can leave Jimmy’s house with smiles instead of frowns!” 

2) Imagine the scene with your child

Next, engage your child in a game of imagination. Verbally walk through what you and he think or hope the activity will be like. Talk about the arrival and the feelings he will have when he sees his friend. Use as much accurate descriptive detail as you can to describe the scene where the event will be occurring. 

Ask your child, “Can you see it? Doesn’t it seem like fun?” Now have your child imagine what the departure will look like. Have him describe what he thinks he will be doing when it is time to go, what you will say and how he will feel. Seek his input. Does he imagine himself carrying the keys to the car? Does he unlock the door? Is there a fun place to stop quickly on the way home? Having your child anticipate the ending with this amount of detail will help him be prepared for the feelings that will come when it happens for real.

3) Practice

For some children, the above two steps may be sufficient. However, if your child has a long-term pattern of tantrums over transitions, some practice is in order. Help your preschooler with transitions by using your imagination. Pretend that you are both at the event. Decide on a key phrase you will use to indicate that his fun time is coming to an end. Now act out the ending routine. Do it a few times. Be playful and have fun as you practice.

Practice can also include the use of a visual timer, such as a sand timer. It can be very helpful to give your child a 5 or 10 minute warning but since time is abstract for little ones a sand time can help them “see” how much more time they have before the transition begins. Using the timer for everyday at home transitions can help the child be more receptive to its use outside the home. You can place the timer next to your child and say, “Five minutes until we need to clean up (get our coats on, etc.).”

4) Discuss what will happen after the transition if it goes well.

Have an activity planned that will begin upon your arrival home. You can even set it up before you leave. You can say, “When we get home we will work on this new puzzle together and have a snack.” Set the puzzle and snack on the kitchen table as a visual reminder of what will come next.

5) Discuss what will happen if it doesn’t go well.

Before you even leave for the play date, talk about what will happen if he has a meltdown upon leaving. Explain what behaviors you will have grace for (needing a reminder or two) and those that you will not (screaming, hitting, throwing things). Ultimately, what your child chooses to do is up to him. If he has a difficult transition, skip the fun stop on the way home, and take some time to relax. If he asks why you are not doing the puzzle with him, you can explain that you used up all your playtime energy helping him leave. Give him encouragement that you know he will do better next time.

If your child historically has difficulty with transitions, try these steps.  While it is true that they will require some time and planning on your part, rest assured that once the bad pattern is broken, you will reap the rewards for a long time to come. 

Click here for more tips on discipline during the preschool years.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

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About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and moms in Connecticut. She is the author of More Than a Conqueror, A Christian Kid's Guide to Winning the War on Worry. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of the things she is most passionate about: God's word, parenting and mental health.

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