The Trouble with Transitions: When Switching Gears Causes Conflict

by The Growing Room

Is your child grumpy or argumentative, resistant or unresponsive, tearful or fearful? What about full-blown meltdowns? It could be that all of these unwelcome emotions are the unintended result of the same circumstance — transitions.

A transition refers to change. Transitioning, or moving, to new places, people and activities is something we do many times during the day; however, change can be overwhelming and seem unpredictable for your child, especially when he is not ready to make that move to the next place or activity.

Being asked to switch gears is a common trigger for many kids. Difficulty with transitions can manifest in a number of ways: avoidance, anxiety, distraction, defiance, frustration or negotiation. Many of these reactions are the results of kids being overwhelmed by their emotions. For others, reactions have been learned to successfully delay or avoid the transition. While transitions are difficult and triggers for many kids, they are particularly difficult for kids who experience anxiety, emotional, or developmental issues.

Why Transitions are Difficult
Transitions can be difficult for children — and adults. The main reason is that we are often transitioning from something we enjoy to something we need to do. While young and old experience transitions, it is the adults who determine when and where transitions occur. The inability to control their own routines is what causes angst for kids during transitions.

This can be especially problematic for children who are sensitive or experience anxiety.

Sensory/Environmental Processing Challenges
Often a child will struggle with transitions because he is sensory-sensitive. A sensory-sensitive child will react negatively to a change in noise level, light, smell or temperature, making transitions especially difficult. Children with sensory issues are prone to outbursts that they cannot control when they are overwhelmed by quick unexpected changes. When events are changed too quickly, parents will see resistance and problem behaviors. These emotional meltdowns can impact family routines and try parents’ patience.

When children suffer from anxiety, transitions come to signify fear. It could be fear of the unknown or concerns about the event on the other side of the transition. In this case, the problem is likely some stimuli connected to the transition, not the process of transitioning. If the transition leads to a particular setting where the child has experienced upset, the process of transition will be a trigger. Children who have perfectionistic tendencies can also experience anxiety. Interruptions before a task is satisfactorily completed can cause great upset.

While children who are sensitive, anxious, or experience developmental challenges are likely to find transitions difficult, all parents have felt the frustration when trying to get the kids out the door, in the car, in the tub, at the dinner table or in bed. The good news is that parents can help ease the tension during transitions and help their children navigate in ways that teach valuable life skills (not to mention the peace and ease it will mean in daily life for parents!)

Understanding the triggers that make kids balk, resist, whine or negotiate during transitions is the first step to managing them. Paying attention to the following tips will lead to better relationships and a peaceful family environment.

Establish and Maintain Routine Schedules

Children love and need routine. The daily rhythm of routines helps ease the transition process. Routines give kids an idea about what they can expect to happen each day from sunrise to sunset. The same basic sequence each day will help them to expect, and more importantly, anticipate a change of activity. This helps them maintain a sense of organization and order.

Identify the Transitions During Your Child’s Day

Children experience several distinct and routine transitions during the day. Pay close attention to those times and the transition process. Transitions involving getting dressed, leaving preferred activities for less desirable tasks, and leaving one location for another all deserve special consideration in terms of approach.

Kids will feel comfortable and cooperative moving from one activity to another when a few safeguards are in place. We are all creatures of habit and crave order.

Children are no different and applying these “cues” will supply the order they crave to help them feel calm and in control of their circumstances. Here are some tips that will help move your kids towards smoother transitions.

Transitions take time: Avoid changing activities quickly.

Picture yourself blissfully engaged in the activity of your choice, only to be unceremoniously whisked away for no apparent good reason. You can imagine the emotions that would bubble up. They may include frustration, anger, or exasperation. Children feel these same kinds of emotions yet do not have the coping skills to address them in acceptable ways. And, what’s worse is that this can be the daily emotional rhythm for our children. What good-intentioned parent hasn’t uttered the words “Hurry!” while trying to navigate work, school, team activities, music lessons and the market? As adults, we feel rushed and stressed by the daily grind of our schedules. Imagine how that feels to a child who literally has no concept of time? All they know is that they are being pulled away from that blissful place of play for something way less appealing! To effectively employ the following tips, time must be on your side. Pay attention to the transitions that are difficult and build an extra ten minutes or more into each of them. Avoid changing activities quickly.

Talk about it: Before, During and After (Verbal Clues)

Now that you have identified the problematic transitions and provided extra time to accommodate it, provide verbal clues. Verbal cues are an absolute necessity when encouraging your child to transition from one activity to the next. Children benefit from information; this is effective whether your child is 5 or 15. Getting in the habit of offering information to a child makes them feel included and respected. Information kindly shared will help prevent power struggles around transitions through always letting them know what is “next”. For parents of younger children this can feel like a continual monologue of your every movement. “After the table is cleared, I am going to start your bath because it’s getting close to bedtime”.

In addition, always use concrete verbal clues that a child can understand. Children don’t understand abstract time frames. “Three more times down the slide” is more effective than “We can stay for 5 more minutes”. After the initial cue is given, cue support during the transition is valuable, “I see you have been down the slide twice, let me watch while you go down one last time!” followed up with positive feedback, “I appreciate how quickly you came to the car and were ready to head home for dinner. It will be fun to come again and spend more time on the slide”.

And, pay attention to tone of voice.

Transitions should not be a time for reminding, coercing, or negotiating. Transitions need to be expressed with warmth and precision, yet not barked out from another room. Cues that are based in kind language and tone (versus orders) will have greater positive impact. The idea is that your child gravitates towards you, not away!

Highlighting the upside of transitions: get creative!

Pointing out the positive side to a transition can certainly ease the way. This can be done by focusing the child’s attention away from the change and onto something that brings excitement. Making transitions fun is a great tool for little ones, “Who can hop all the way to the car without falling?” Discussing upcoming activities that the kids can look forward to after the transition is a great approach “If we leave right now, we will have time to stop by the market and pick up ice cream for later tonight”. Sometimes including a special toy (often times the one being played with) during the transition will encourage cooperation, “Would Grey Kitty like to come with us to pick up your sister?” And, finally, including children in the transition process can produce great results. Children are more cooperative when they can be part of the process. Asking a child to alert others in a fun way, using creative ways to encourage clean up, or singing “clean up” songs all provide added fun, interaction, and incentive for the child.

Let children protest.

The untold story about transitions is children sometimes need to protest. As trying as it is for parents, they need express how disappointed they feel. Of course, these protests come at the most inconvenient times, but listening will provide parents insight as to the best way to support their children. Listening also conveys respect and warmth and provides the connection with parents that will pay great emotional dividends in the future.


The Growing Room Academy’s collaborative partnership with Village Music School allows our students and San Ramon Valley families to participate in an exciting array of expanded music education classes. This alliance allows Village Music School to extend their successful studio music program from the Diablo Valley to the San Ramon Valley.

Village Music School classes are held within the walls of Growing Room

Academy and will be housed in two rooms solely dedicated as music studios. Classes are offered weekday afternoons and evenings, plus Saturdays.