The Chicago Cubs are at bat in game seven of the World Series. It’s the bottom of the 9th inning, two outs, and bases are loaded. The team’s big hitter steps up to bat and *snap* - your spouse turns off the TV and says, ‘It’s time to go to the grocery store!’ Needless to say the ensuing reaction from the Cubs fan is unpleasant. While such a scenario may be unlikely, this is, in essence, how transitions can feel to toddlers – startling, maddening, frustrating, and incomprehensible. For young children interruptions and transitions are hard, but there are things that parents can do to help.
Toddlerhood is a time of wondrous discoveries. Young children are exploring and engaging with their world in new ways every day, from crawling to walking, talking to singing, grabbing or pulling; a new adventure is seemingly around every corner waiting to be uncovered. And for parents watching their child’s elation as they learn about their world is equally incredible to experience! But in a blink of an eye, a toddler’s joy can turn into misery when confronted with a transition.
Transitions are not easy for toddlers and never have been. As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, “At this age almost every transition can be difficult, because as your daughter’s cognition continues to mature, she will not be as easily distracted as she once was.”* In other words, as children grow, so do their emotional and cognitive abilities, changing what they can do and comprehend. For example, you would not expect a 5th grader to be able to drive a car because they are not only physically unable, but because they are also not cognitively or emotionally ready. This is the same reason we cannot have expectations that toddlers should handle transitions with grace – because their tiny, yet incredible minds aren’t able to - yet.
Toddlers live in the here, the now, and what is in front of them. They are not able to rationally consider the reasoning behind transitions, like ‘we need to stop playing because we have to walk the dog.’ Nor are they able to comprehend the concept of time, like ‘it’s time to leave because the park is closing.’
“At five, transitions are still hard for her, especially when she has to give up an enjoyable experience, such as visiting Grandma or a playmate. Older children have a more sophisticated understanding of time. They know how long a two-hour visit is, and accept that when the time is up, they will have to go. Five-year-olds often feel that endings are arbitrary and negotiable, especially when they are having fun. This is the reason that leaving gracefully is not always in their power.”*
Unhappy responses to transitions, like crying or screaming, are how toddlers express their unpleasant feelings - this is normal, temporary, and there is nothing wrong with it. Like the Cubs fan watching the World Series – they are enjoying themselves so much that any reason to stop is unfathomable. But there are several things that parents can do to help alleviate some of the stress and help make things go smoother.
When the time to leave is near, it is helpful to allow for extra time, this can help alleviate the stress of time constraints. Also, be prepared by having all of the items you need ready – hats, shoes, snacks, toys, etc. Give your toddler a notice that in five minutes you will need to leave. When the time comes, you can sing a fun song before telling your child in a loving tone that it’s time to go. It’s also helpful to suggest something they will look forward to, like a snack or game, for when they leave. It could all sound something like:
‘Hiho, hiho, it’s almost time to go… Sweetie, I know how much fun you are having, but it’s time to go, but when we get into your stroller, Mommy can give you your favorite snack.’
Be careful not to bribe, like ‘if you behave you can have a piece of candy.’ And be sure to avoid threats like, ‘if you cry, we can’t come back here again’, as these tend to only make things worse and rarely work.
If your toddler becomes upset regardless of your best efforts avoid prolonging the misery by trying to reason with your child, like ‘mommy needs to start dinner’ or ‘daddy has a phone call soon’, as their minds won’t be able to process or absorb what you are trying to communicate. Instead lovingly pick up your child and get it done and over with while providing your care and sympathies. It may sound like:
‘I know how much fun you were having and how hard it is to leave, but it is time to go.’
While all of these steps are helpful to prepare for a transition in the moment, the most important and influential step parents can take to help their toddler better tolerate transitions is by granting their child’s desires as much as you can. Aside from when their health and safety may be compromised, Drs. Pieper explain, “Your child will better accept your occasional need to interfere with her wishes if you honor her requests whenever possible.”**
Put differently, people have only so much tolerance or bandwidth for when things don’t go their way, but a toddler’s bandwidth is very narrow. When providing toddlers with what they want, provided its healthy and safe, toddlers will have more emotional space for when you need to impede their fun. And when parents respond with patience and kindness, and grant their child’s wishes they are nurturing their child’s happiness and self-esteem; and creating a happier household.
“Children whose parents are most responsive and least withholding feel loved and lovable, and as a result they are better able to tolerate frustration. As two-year-olds, these children will generally be terrific rather than terrible. They will certainly make clear their unhappiness when their wishes are frustrated, but they will also respond to the inevitable disappointments with resilience and a strong desire to get help from their parents, rather than by turning to more isolated kinds of soothing.”**
Lastly, when a transition is turning for the worse, be sure to have a sense of humor. Toddlers’ emotions can be big and loud. Do not take it personally when your toddler adamantly voices their unhappiness, rather see it for what it is – a temporary developmental stage.
“If you realize that this intense version of ‘I want what I want when I want it’ is normal and temporary, you will be better able to respond to your toddler’s determined acquisitiveness with good humor and sensitivity.”**
* Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood. (2012). Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services.
**Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child. Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Harvard Common Press. 1999