Taming Tough Transitions

For many children, moving from one activity to another can be a great challenge.  Managing expectations during transitions and using specific strategies can decrease battles and increase harmony when moving shifting tasks.  Below are several ways to ease transition time both inside and outside of the home.

Set Expectations

First, it is important that your children understand the expectations when moving from one activity to another.  All of us, especially children, need a heads up that time is almost up when we are engrossed in activity; imagine being in the middle of a long and thoughtful email, and your spouse, who you vaguely know would like to leave for your dinner reservation, came into your office and unplugged your computer.  Yes, you knew it was dinner time and you needed to get on the road, but your first reaction might not be so agreeable.  The same goes for our children – they may have some understanding of what is expected from them, but the grown-ups are usually the real time-keepers.   Even in routines that are expected of them every day, children are often not as aware of time and schedule as adults are, and based on their ability to focus completely on their favorite things, endings may sneak up on them.  This is especially true if they are asked to stop something enjoyable and move to a less than preferred task (i.e., leaving the park for dinner, turning off the TV to go brush their teeth).  To help with clear expectations, involve your children in discussions about timing.  This may mean talking about the next day at dinner the night before, keeping a family calendar, or even using a visual schedule.  The bottom line is, the fewer surprises (or seeming surprises) the better.

Executive Functioning

Task switching, as well as emotion regulation, are executive functions, stored in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  Recent research tells us that this part of the brain does not finish developing until our mid-20s.  That means that your child is continuously building the skills controlled in this part of the brain, and that adult support is often needed to support this growth.  One note on teenagers: we know that the brain goes through a major development period during adolescence, starting with the hind brain which controls more basic instincts and emotions, and culminates with the prefrontal lobe.  No wonder our teens have strong feelings, and often dysregulated emotions when it is time to move from Snapchat to the shower.

Setting Timers

Timers can be invaluable.  It helps parents get out of arguments about how much time has actually passed, and is an excellent visual and auditory clue that it is time to move.  I recommend having your child pick an amount of time within reason (5 minutes or 6 minutes) and then have them look at the timer, or even set it themselves.  Many children bargain for more time, at which point parents can empathize with the desire to play for longer, but clearly set limits that more time isn’t an option right now.  If the child cannot pick a time offered, the adult can make the decision and set the timer for them, i.e., “you seem to be having trouble choosing so I can choose for you, here’s the timer for 5 minutes, take a look.”  If the child wants to switch at that time, we can be flexible and allow 6 minutes.  The real goal is help them see that their play is finite and there is something else coming down the pike.  Another timer tip is giving language to ask for one more minute.  As soon as a timer goes off many kids will begin to get upset – teach them the phrase “Can I have one more minute please?”  Often, one minute more, with the clear expectation that it is the last minute, can save a lot of time managing a meltdown.


We often forget that we get to move from one thing together in our own time, with fewer external guidelines than our children have. It often helps to empathize that you understand why they wouldn’t want to stop doing something fun and do something less fun, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be done.  An example might be, “I could see why stopping your video game and starting homework would seem like it stinks.  Would you like to do your homework at the kitchen table or someone a little more relaxing like your bean bag chair?”

Things come back

Many children struggle with transition because they sometimes worry that they will never get to do the fun thing ever again.  Talk to your child about the next time they will be able to use their toy or play in the park before the meltdown begins.  You can also help your child put a toy in a “special place” so they know where it is when they want to use it again.

Manage the Time Crunch

It seems as though the less time we have, the more stress and meltdowns occur.  When possible, build a bit of wiggle room into your schedule so you can allow for a bit more flexibility and destress yourself, which may in turn destress your kids.

Get into the play

For younger children, it can be very helpful to play with them for a few minutes before it is time to clean up.  Getting into their world and coming out together can be a lot easier than a sudden demand from someone outside of their fun.

Get their Say

Finally, when appropriate, including children in the planning of the day may allow them to feel that they have ownership over certain parts of it, where appropriate.  This inclusion may encourage a more collaborative approach to moving throughout the day.


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