Your child loves going to his friend's house, hanging out at the playground, or taking a trip to the local zoo. In fact, it's quite possible that he loves these activities so much that he doesn't want to leave. And he lets you know it -- in the form of resisting, whining, or even a having a major meltdown. "Making a transition from one activity to the next can be difficult for preschoolers because they don't have a good grasp of time and they can't appreciate why it's important to stay on a schedule," says Steven Curtis, PhD, a child psychologist and author of Understanding Your Child's Puzzling Behavior. If "I don't want to go" sounds all too familiar, follow our five-step plan to help your child make a graceful exit.
Step 1: Let Him Know the Schedule
While your child is eating breakfast, mention what activities you have planned for the entire day. "A quick rundown will give your child time to process that when one activity ends, there is still going to be some other stuff for him to do," says child psychologist Beth Grosshans, PhD, author of Beyond Time-Out: From Chaos to Calm.
Step 2: Give Her a Heads-Up
Children get most upset when you expect them to end an activity abruptly. So you should always try to give your child a little warning that it's almost time for everyone to go home, suggests Bonnie Harris, author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You'll Love to Live With. "Ideally, tell your child when she has 10 minutes until you're ready to leave, and then again when she has two minutes left," says Harris. To make it even more concrete for children, try putting it in terms they'll surely understand -- like we need to go after playing three more rounds of "duck, duck, goose" or taking one more bike ride around the block. Even then, don't expect an easy exit.
A Graceful Exit
Step 3: Make It More Appealing
If you were lying on the beach in Hawaii, would you be excited about getting on the plane to return to your usual routine? Probably not. It's the same for kids! When they're having the time of their life soaring through the air on the swings at the playground and you interrupt to tell them that they have to go home to get ready for bed, don't expect them to be thrilled with the idea. A surefire way to head off a confrontation: "Children this age have a hard time resisting a game," says Dr. Grosshans. "So instead of shouting that it's time to leave right now, make a game of it." Things like racing to the car, playing "name that tune," or singing silly songs provide a distraction for your child so he won't feel like he's -- well, like he's leaving a beach in Hawaii to go to work.
Step 4: Be Understanding
Is your child still putting up a fuss despite your zaniest efforts? Say something like, "It looks like you had a lot of fun with your friend. Do you want to say goodbye or wave to her?" Harris explains, "When your child feels you understand where she's coming from, she'll be more likely to cooperate with you."
Step 5: Keep Your Cool
After you've tried everything and your child still refuses to leave, move into action mode. "Do what's necessary to get him where he's supposed to be, even if it means picking him up and carrying him," says Dr. Curtis. "But don't threaten never to take him anywhere again; it'll only escalate the situation."
By the time you make it to your next destination, things will probably have calmed down. You should then briefly discuss what happened and allow your child to tell you what he could have done differently. And hang in there: "Kids typically start making transitions more easily once they're in elementary school because their day becomes more structured and predictable," says Dr. Curtis.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Parents magazine.