Toddlers aren’t pleased when parents want them to change activities–and they’re not afraid to show it. With their short attention spans, toddlers spend half the day switching from one activity–playing, napping, hand-washing–to another. Learning to move smoothly from task to task is an important developmental step for toddlers, according to Dr. Katherine Glenn-Applegate, assistant professor of early childhood education at Ohio’s Wesleyan University. Consistent practice teaches children that transitions won't end their world.
If your child knows what to expect, she is less likely to have a meltdown at transition time. For example, maybe the bedtime routine is always brushing teeth, snuggling in bed with a story, a kiss on each eyelid and turning on the nightlight. Allow your child choices. Since you make many of her daily decisions, this gives her an important sense of control. Choices must be routine and expected. For example, she can choose which parent does the bedtime routine or which of three books to read. Whether it’s the same parent, different parents or grandparents carrying out the routine, consistency is essential.
A word of warning eliminates the sudden surprise of transition. When you say, “In five minutes it will be time to leave,” you ease the shock. You know your child best; he may respond better to a one-or-two-minute warning or a countdown. Tell him what will happen next: “In two minutes, we are going home for your favorite lunch.” Try to make the next activity sound enticing.
Sticking to your word is essential, notes Glenn-Applegate. If it’s time to leave in five minutes, leave in five minutes -- don’t cut it to 30 seconds, get caught in a conversation that stretches the time or let your child pout her way into more time. When she fusses or begs you to let her play longer and you give in, you teach her that your words are negotiable, which sets a dangerous precedent. Though metaphorically putting your foot down might create a scene at the playground the first couple times, your child learns that tantrums don’t work on you.
Tone of voice makes a difference. Many parents worry about being mean. You don’t have to yell or stamp your feet, although it can be tempting sometimes. Remember, you’re the adult here. Your voice does need to convey unequivocal certainty that what you say is true. Keep a calm, steady tone, even when your toddler’s pitch and volume increase. You won’t add fuel to the brewing tantrum, but you’ll demonstrate that it simply is the way it is.
You can incorporate music, movement or objects into the transition, depending on the activity. Use a hand puppet and change your voice to announce bath time. Play soft music at bedtime. Listen to a recorded story that helps your child relax before his nap. Try clapping a rhythm or using physical movement: “Jump like a grasshopper and pick up your toys.”
Glenn-Applegate says putting it all together might sound like this: Parent: “All right, Honey, your two minutes are up; it’s time to brush your teeth and get ready for bed.” Child: “Two minutes?” Parent: “Sorry, Kiddo, but my watch is telling me it is your bedtime, so bedtime it is.” Child: “Noooo!” Parent: “I know you love reading books, and I love reading books with you, but we’re done for today. Do you want me or Grandpa to brush with you?”