Why Transitions Trigger Problem Behavior

One common problem behavior trigger for many children is transitions. Whether it’s getting ready for bed, or coming to dinner, or putting down the video game controller, in many families transitions can become a flashpoint that everyone learns to dread.

If transitions are a problem for your child, it is important to figure out what about the transition is difficult. Often kids don’t like stopping an activity that they are enjoying (like playing on the computer) in order to do something less fun, like getting ready to leave the house. While no one enjoys stopping fun things, some kids struggle with it more than others. That can be a sign that they are still developing emotional self-regulation skills, but it is just one possible cause. Other children struggle to cope with unanticipated changes in schedule, or moving on from something that they feel like they haven’t finished.

Struggling with transitions can even be a sign of a mental health disorder in some children. Children with ADHD, autism, anxiety and OCD are all more likely to struggle with transitions.

Techniques to make transitions easier

Once you’ve narrowed down what you think might be behind your child’s resistance to transitions, then you can start brainstorming what you think might help. (Note: If you think your child might have an undiagnosed mental health disorder, taking your concerns to a clinician is important.)

Here are some techniques that you might want to try:

Preview and countdown: Every morning, lay out what the day will look like. Before each transition, give a timeframe and description of what will happen along with countdowns (in 20 minutes, then 10, then 5 it will be time to finish breakfast and head to school). This helps kids prepare emotionally.

Get their attention: For kids who struggle to regulate their attention, make a particular effort to capture theirs. Make eye contact, sit next to them, put your hand on their shoulder, or ask them to repeat back what you have said. It makes them more likely to follow through.

Use music: Songs can help kids (particularly young kids) ease into transitions. The “clean up” song is a popular example of this, but there are many songs that can be found or made up to suit a variety of situations from tying shoes to brushing teeth.

Visual cues: Posting a chart with pictures illustrating what to expect from a particular transition or the steps involved is a good visual reminder for children to fall back on.

Create routines: If there are transitions that your child struggles with every day, like going to bed, build some consistency and structure into that transition. For example, when it’s close to bedtime, your child can pick one last thing she wants to do. Then, you both go upstairs to brush teeth and read a story, then it’s lights out. Doing this routine consistently helps kids know what to expect and makes the transition easier.

Use rewards: Rewards can be an effective tool to use for difficult transitions until children have gotten used to them. Parents can use stickers, snacks, or a point system that leads to tangible rewards.

Appropriate consequences: If a transition isn’t going well, think about what consequences you are (or aren’t) giving. Yelling isn’t an effective consequence, but active ignoring or a time out might be.

Use praise: When a child does follow through with a transition, make sure you give him some enthusiastic labeled praise to recognize his behavior. For example: “I really liked how you handed over the iPad right away and started brushing your teeth. Now we have more time to read!”