Transitions Made Easier
For parents of young children (2-7) years old.
Parents have often asked me, “How do I get my son/daughter to move from one activity to another without yelling, counting, nagging, or threatening?” “We especially have a hard time in the morning, when we need to get out the door to go to day care or school and work, and at night, when it’s bedtime.” “I’m so exhausted by the time they’re in bed, I need to go to sleep myself!”
WHY ARE TRANSITIONS OFTEN DIFFICULT FOR YOUNG CHILDREN?
Children under seven years old do not have the same concept of time as older children, teens, and adults. What seems to us to be a straightforward request, like, “We need to be ready to go in 5 minutes. “ could just as well be five hours to a young child. Also, young children live, for the most part, in the present. They are not usually sitting around lamenting something they should have said or done yesterday, nor are they planning what they will do tomorrow. The present moment is the one that has most reality for them.
Most adults, on the other hand, spend most of the their time in the future or past. This is a good thing, since young children need adults to plan and structure their lives for them. This difference can often lead to power struggles between parents and children, with parents often feeling like a drill sergeant, barking orders to get their children moving!
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
So, how do we avoid the power struggles, and help our children move from one activity to another? I suggest using a kitchen timer – the old-fashioned kind you wind up by hand, and which makes a ticking sound. The ticking sound is the key here. Children can hear the passage of time, and hear the “ding” of the timer, signaling when time is up, and it’s time to move on to the next activity.
For example, you can say to your 4 year old, “When the timer goes “ding” you need to be dressed and come to the kitchen table for breakfast.”
Then, it is important to positively reward the child for coming to the kitchen table for breakfast. Usually, a verbal acknowledgement is enough, such as “Good for you. You came to the table when the timer went “ding.” “Good job.” Young children will often work to get their parent’s approval – a much stronger incentive than avoiding punishment.
ADVANTAGES OF USING A KITCHEN TIMER
- Children have a better sense of the passage of time, rather than trying to guess when 15 minutes have elapsed.
- Children often try to “beat the clock” and get finished with an activity before the timer goes “ding.”
- Parents can let go of the “bad guy” role (the one who yells, nags, counts and threatens) and let the timer be the “bad guy.”
- Children learn to be accountable, and feel more successful at transitioning from one task to another.
- Parents and children can replace power struggles with more enjoyable interactions.
Jacob is a four year old boy who has a hard time going to bed at night. After talking with his parents, I recommended their use of a kitchen timer. They listed all the steps in Jacob’s bedtime routine: bath, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, 3 bedtime stories, 1 song, and lights out. They decided to use a kitchen timer so he’d know when to finish one activity and move on to the next. Then they thought of consequences for taking too much time with a task. If he took too long brushing his teeth, for example, he only got to hear 2 bedtime stories, instead of three. (More on consequences in May.) After a while, they grouped some of the activities and increased the time to complete them (putting on pajamas and brushing teeth became one activity, etc.)
At first, they needed to use consequences to keep Jacob on track. After a while, though, he looked forward to getting through the pre-bedtime activities on time to have his stories and song (rewards) at the end.
If you have questions about your child’s behavior, please e-mail Pnina Tobin