Countdown to calm: How to ease transitions for toddlers

As a parent, you’ve likely received a lot of child-rearing advice – most of it unsolicited. While I usually take tips from strangers with a grain of salt, there’s one nugget I think of as the best piece of parenting advice I have ever received.  OK, that might be an exaggeration, but the fact that I still remember it after many years says something.

When my daughter was about two years old and my son was an infant, we would go to the park every day. We’d enjoy our time playing on the swings, going down the slide, making mud pies in the sandbox.  Then there was the moment of truth: as soon as the words “It’s time to go home” left my lips, my daughter would spiral down into a full blown, wailing, flailing, down-on-the-ground temper tantrum.  I would struggle mightily to carry my hitting, screaming child home, while pushing the stroller with the other arm.

Baby/ Toddler Speaking To His Mother/ Carer In The Park

One day, another mom said to me, “I find it really helps if I give my kids a five-minute warning before it’s time to leave the park.” I was sceptical. I asked myself how something so simple could actually work – but I was willing to try. The next day when it was almost time to leave the park, I started the countdown. I got in close, down at her level, and said, “In five minutes it will be time to leave the park and go home for lunch.”  After about a minute, I called out “four minutes!” then proceeded to countdown each minute until the moment of truth: “Ok, five minutes is up, time to go!”

“Okay mommy,” my daughter responded and ran to where I was standing – and we left. It worked – I couldn’t believe it! How had it taken me two years to learn this simple advice?

Transitions are a challenging time for any toddler. Stopping one activity and starting up another often means a toddler has to disengage from something fun and shift into nap time, mealtime, bedtime or go somewhere else. Even though I knew transitions were challenging, I didn’t know how to stop the tantrum from happening. Clearly!

With this new piece of advice tucked under my belt, I looked for other ways to help make transitions a little easier for my daughter (and for me). I realized that she needed to learn how to transition, and that this is an important developmental step for toddlers.

Here are some strategies that helped make transitions smoother in our home:

  1. Give advanced warning.
    • This can be a simple countdown, try: “In five minutes it will be time to leave the park.” Then countdown each minute. At the one minute mark you can say, “We’re leaving in one minute. Finish up the sand castle you’re making.”
    • If minutes are confusing for your child, you could try counting: “You can have three more turns down the slide and then we will go.”
    • Some children react better when a timer is used for their transitions. “When the timer goes off it will be time to clean up the toys and come for dinner.”
  1. Give simple, clear instructions. Using a calm voice, tell your child what you would like them to do. “The timer went off. Let’s pick up the sand toys and go home for lunch.” Getting down to your child’s level will ensure that your child hears what you’re saying and won’t be surprised when it’s time to leave an activity.
  2. Give them choices. This helps them feel like they have some control over the situation. For instance, when it’s time to leave the house you could say, “Do you want to wear your sandals or running shoes?”
  3. Give them a transitional object or play item. One of the challenges for my son was to leave the toys he was playing with  when we took his sister to school, or do other errands. I would say to him, “Pick one of your action figures to come with you while we walk your sister to school.” This worked well for him.
  4. Develop transition rituals. I found this worked best for transitions involving separation. When I dropped my children at daycare, I would give them a kiss, a hug and a high-five. The predictability of this routine gave them a sense of control. Singing the ‘clean up’ song when transitioning from playing with toys to mealtime is another example of a great ritual.
  5. Be fun. If there is an opportunity to make transitions fun, it will go easier. Try making a game of it. “It’s time to put your trains back in the station. Let’s see if you can do it by the time I count to 10!” Or “It’s time to brush our teeth. I’m going to hop to the bathroom. How are you going to get there?”
  6. Don’t plan too many activities. The more activities, the more transitions. If children have to shift between things too frequently, they’re bound to get frustrated. Make sure your child has plenty of time to play, as well as to enjoy some down time.
  7. Develop routines. Most people (even adults) like to know what’s coming each day. You don’t have to have the same schedule every day; feel free to mix up your activities. However, basic daily routines are important, like meals and naps.

Each toddler has their own temperament and may need more time to transition from one activity to the next. But helping your toddler learn to make transitions smoothly will have a huge pay off.  Once I had implemented these strategies, I was able to make trips to the park with the confidence knowing that it wouldn’t necessarily end in meltdowns.

What strategies have worked for you? We’d love to hear them!

For parenting information or to speak with a Public Health Nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.

About Maureen Harris, RN

I have been working as a Public Health Nurse for many years. I enjoy working with families and supporting them along their parenting journey. I’m passionate about promoting a healthy active lifestyle for families. When not working, you can often find me hiking the beautiful trails in Halton Hills with my family.
This entry was posted in Parenting, Parenting Your Toddler & Preschooler, Play, Growth & Development, Toddlers & Preschoolers and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Countdown to calm: How to ease transitions for toddlers

  1. Pingback: Returning to work? How to make breastfeeding work for you! | HaltonParents

  2. Naomi says:

    What if your toddler has a communication delay? My two year old still isn’t talking and, although they understand some instructions, I don’t think they understand the passage or countdown of time or activities. They understand when its time to go and throw the fit described, but when I try to communicate that we’re leaving soon I don’t think they comprehend what that means. Do it anyway? Or do you have another suggestion?

    • Andrea Scott RN says:

      HI Naomi, that’s a great question. First of all, are you receiving support for your child’s communication delay? If not, and if you are in Halton, dial 311 to be connected with our developmental consultants. They would be able to figure out the best way to handle your scenario as every child is different and will need different strategies depending on the reason for the delay. The above tips may still work well for your child, especially “you can have three more turns to go down the slide” if your child is able to understand spoken language. Also, even with all of these tips, many toddlers will still throw a fit! Over time, following the strategies that seem to work best and avoiding reinforcing the behaviour can help your child deal with transitions. ~Andrea RN

  3. Angie says:

    I have a three year old whom appears to have a temper tantrum EVERY time the word “No” is used or if she doesn’t get the answer she wants. Getting her dressed in the morning; picking one treat opposed to 2, bedtime, dropping her off at Preschool. I feel that we have routines and reminders in place but nothing appears to be working. I suffer with anxiety and depression; so for me, these moments can be extra sensitive.
    Bedtime; her brother whom is in grade 1 and practising his reading, will read us all a story. We then move to her room for a one on one story and then its bedtime. Melt down begins.
    Daycare: We drive her brother to school and then it’s her turn. I am about to leave. Meltdown begins.
    Dressing: We come in with options for her to choose but the idea of getting dressed is when the temper tantrum begins.
    Treats: After swimming lessons; we usually let the kids pick a treat from the vending machine with the verbal expectation that they had a good lesson; went in with no fuss, and listened to the teacher. I remind her that it will be 1 treat, not 2. I get her to repeat it. When it is time to go, she wants 2. I remind her it is one. Temper tantrum begins. She lays on the floor, kicks, cries. I then have to carry her out this way with my 6 year old holding my coat because I can’t hold his hand to cross the street.
    Any suggestions, recommendations, advice would be greatly appreciated.
    – Angie

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