Tough Transitions: Handling Awkward Situations

Your child gets so absorbed in his activities that it's hard to pull him away. Don't miss our tips for finessing four sticky situations.
baby standing in crib

For Kim Bohn, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, weekday mornings are a drag -- in more ways than one. While she rushes around getting ready for work, her 2-year-old, Lia, resists every attempt to go along with the morning routine. When Lia's playing in pajamas, the last thing she wants to do is get dressed. Afterward, she doesn't want to sit down for breakfast. "Anytime Lia has to stop what she's doing and start something else, it's a battle," says her mom. "Sometimes, I feel like throwing the tantrum myself!"

As frustrating as Lia's constant foot-dragging may seem, though, she's not just being stubborn, says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., professor of psychology emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and coauthor of Baby Minds. Transitions are often hard for kids this age to handle. "Toddlers live in the moment, and every moment is fascinating to them," Dr. Acredolo explains. "This is how they learn and grow, but it also means they don't like to have their 'work' interrupted." Luckily, there are ways to make these stops and starts much easier for her -- and for yourself.

Situation: Leaving the House

You've been talking about going to Grandma's for days, and counting down to get-in-the-car time for the last half hour. Still, when you announce, "Time to go!" your child falls apart. What's up? "Toddlers don't understand the concept of time, and they have trouble holding on to an idea of the future," says Daniel Wagner, Psy.D., adjunct professor of psychology at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Maryland. Dr. Wagner suggests staying away from the word time altogether and, instead, using units your child can understand, such as, "We're going to leave as soon as Winnie the Pooh is over." Once the movie ends, try making a game of your exit. Keep things in the present and say something like, "Grandma is so excited to see us. Let's use our quick feet to get to the car. Quick, quick, quick!"

Situation: Ending a Playdate

As hard as it is to get to a playdate, leaving one can be even harder: Not only is your child engrossed by the toys and her friends, but by goodbye time, she's probably exhausted. When you're facing an unyielding kid, it's natural to reach for adult-style explanations, such as, "Daddy's waiting for us" or "It's getting late." Unfortunately, your toddler can't understand the concept of lateness or grasp anyone's feelings except her own -- and over-explanation may aggravate her even further, says Dr. Acredolo. So instead of focusing on why you're leaving, let your child know how. Beth Nielsen, of Spearfish, South Dakota, taught her two toddlers a cute get-going phrase: "Let's have a good goodbye so we can have a happy hello when we visit again!" On hearing that, the duo knew it was time to pack up.

Situation: Sitting Down for a Meal

The distance from the kitchen floor to your kid's seat at the dinner table may be just a few feet -- but how can he possibly tear himself away from the fascinating Duplo train station he just started building? Since toddlers like to feel in control, letting him make a small decision may give him enough of a boost to move on happily, says Dr. Wagner. Get down on his level to play for a minute or two. Then offer an easy choice by saying something like, "Which block do you want to stack before we go to the dinner table?" You can also remove the need for the switcheroo altogether: While you're still finishing up your cooking, sit your child in his high chair to color or work on some non-messy crafts. This way, when it's time to eat he's already right where you want him.

Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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