My 2.5-year-old niece started having tantrums at multiple transition periods throughout the day. The tantrums last up to 60 minutes and involve crying, making demands (for example, “Mommy, sit over there. No, Mommy, sit over here”) and avoiding comfort. Sometimes there is one tantrum in the day and other times are many. Eventually, she cries herself out and Mommy decides between abandoning the transition for that day (for example, she does not go outside) or the transition occurs after the tantrum (for example, having a late nap or bedtime). When these tantrums started, my sister and I felt it was normal. My daughter had big tantrums after anxiety producing events (like forest school or music class) and often those tantrums were triggered by transition periods. However, my sister’s experience seemed to be progressing in the opposite direction from my own. My experience was tantrums about three times per week (occasionally more) when my daughter was 2.5 years old. These eventually reduced to once per week and now at 3.5-years-old (with COVID-19 lockdown orders and reduced anxiety-producing events) we experience even fewer tantrums. My sister’s experience has been a steadily increasing number of daily tantrums and an increasing duration of each tantrum.
Luckily, because my niece is in my household for childcare, I observed some of these tantrums first-hand and was able to see the techniques my sister was trying as well as the responses from my niece. My sister was tired physically and mentally from coping with the pandemic, a toddler and a special-needs older child being homeschooled. Unsurprisingly, she dreaded the transition periods, wanted to do anything to avoid a tantrum, and felt out of control. My sister did things to avoid the tantrum like offering choices to her child, offering soothing from Mommy, and prolonging the transition process in hopes of avoiding the tantrum altogether. Unfortunately, often, as soon as Mommy finally started the first step of the transition (for example, putting on rain pants to go outside), her child would start the tantrum. In response to choices, the child would simply ignore any choices offered. In response to soothing, the child would typically accept this offer by continuing to express her upset over her many “owies” and each owie needed to be kissed. Towards my sister’s attempt to avoid the tantrum by waiting calmly near the front door, the child would continue playing, move to another location to continue playing and try to run away from the transition location (for example, run into the living room away from the front door area).
What can we do?
After reflection about the various transition periods that my sister and her child were navigating and the techniques I learned from Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, as well as my knowledge of behaviour modification, I came up with a few ideas for my sister to try:
- Reduce the number of transition periods in the day.
- Write an explanatory story for how the transition period would occur and read it prior to the transition as well as at any other calm time during the day.
- Create a transition chart focused on the tasks required for a transition period. For example, a single page with photos of the child’s outdoor clothing that needs to be put on before going outside (rain pants, boots, sweater, rain jacket, toque, etc.) with a final photo of the child fully dressed (this idea came from the pediatric developmental healthcare group in our city). This reminded me of the daily routine chart, which I have found useful for my own child. The daily routine chart is posted near our breakfast table and shows “Outside Time/Adventure”. The transition chart is posted at the front door with the items necessary for going outside (clothing, food, stroller, etc.). All charts have minimal or no words with a focus on simple and clear photos of the child and their belongings.
- Sequence events by explicitly saying the steps that will occur next in the day. For example, “You are eating breakfast. After breakfast, we wipe hands. Then, [Child’s name] will go to the bathroom for brushing teeth.” Sequencing provides more detailed steps than the daily routine chart. But for many children, detailed routine charts in picture form are more effective than saying words. If verbal sequencing is not effective for your child, switch to a visual picture routine. Keep each detailed routine chart as a separate piece of paper to bring out prior to the routine time. It is overwhelming to have a detailed routine chart posted for the entire day.
- Transition scripts: write out exactly what the parent/caregiver will say and do during transition periods. This increases the parent’s compliance with the routine, increases the parent’s confidence in completing the routine, and makes it easier to maintain consistency across caregivers in delivering expectations to the child. Writing scripts allows the parent to reflect on specific words/actions that are needed for their child – different from another child!
- Use songs and music to trigger transition periods. If you observe preschool routines, you will hear teachers singing various renditions of clean-up songs, snack-time songs, line-up songs and circle-time songs. Short, simple verses written in rhyme (or not!) to a little tune helps many children move from one activity to another. It is a method that is often used in groups, but I find is typically overlooked in everyday parenting! I use singing all the time, almost as a second language. We use it for fun and play, for soothing and for transitions.
- Allow pursuit of interests whenever possible. When I reflect on difficult transition periods for my daughter, I often notice a pattern of how she avoids the transition. There is often something that she pursues in preference to the transition period; I think of it as the “procrastinating pursuit”. When I write scripts, sequence events or consider our daily routine, I incorporate time that is dedicated to the procrastinating pursuit. Initially, I try to incorporate this time at every transition. Over time, I have found that I can reduce the duration and frequency of the procrastinating pursuit.
What we tried
Given the urgency of the situation and the exhaustion of my sister, we decided that although the explanatory stories and detailed routines with photos of outdoor clothing and the child would be ideal, it was not practical because it takes too much time to create these tools. Instead, we decided to pick the lower hanging fruit. I would draft transition scripts, like those I used for my own child, and my sister would edit them for her purposes. I wrote five scripts for the five most difficult transition periods:
- Nap Time,
- Going Outside,
- Arriving at a Destination,
- Leaving a Destination, and
- Coming Home.
My sister first chose to work on the Nap Time and Going Outside transitions. Conveniently, my sister also had a previously written explanatory story for Nap Time that she had read many months prior but had stopped when the naps started going well. So, she dusted off that story and read it prior to naps. She used the script throughout the transition period. Importantly, she also reduced the number of transition periods. Instead of bringing her child to my house, we met at the park and then I kept the kids outside until it was time for her child to go home. By doing this we eliminated two additional transition periods, even though it was less convenient for me and my sister.
For example, I have highlighted the Nap Time transition script in this post. Please find pdf versions of all the scripts in the Additional Tools section on the Brave Tools page. (Note: I use the name “Mommy” for simplicity in the scripts, but please use whatever caregiver’s name is appropriate for your family.)
Nap Transition Script
“Lucy, it is almost time for nap! We will listen to our nap song while you finish playing.”
[play or sing song]
After the song ends, say the sequence steps out loud for the child:
- Now we will go to the bathroom to change diaper and put on pajamas
- Then, Lucy will choose a book.
- Then, Lucy will say goodnight to Sister.
- Then, we will go into the bedroom to read.
Stay with the child as they complete the steps and say each step again preceding the step, if necessary.
Sequence the next steps for the child by saying them aloud:
- We are finished the book, so Mommy will turn out the light and Lucy will walk to her room. Mommy will help Lucy to her room even if she is crying [see note 1].
- In the bedroom, Mommy will turn on the white noise.
- Then, Lucy will shut the door and lie down with Lovey.
- [add further nap steps, as per your routine].
If the routine is many steps, break up the sequence of steps into 3 or 4 steps. Say the steps, do the steps then pause and sequence the next steps. Once the routine is firmly in place, you may be able to skip the verbal sequencing or reduce the details of the sequencing by saying a summary step at the start, such as, “Mommy and Lucy will go to the bedroom for our nap time routine”
- [more sequenced nap steps]
- I will kiss all your owies after nap [see note 2]
This is the point in the routine that Lucy most typically started crying and resisting the process. Mom would spend up to 60 minutes waiting for the tantrum to end without getting any further in the routine, while sometimes also trying to solve the child’s crying. My thoughts are that the child is allowed to cry and release her emotional backpack but Mom can still move through more steps of the routine when possible; Mom doesn’t need to solve the crying. Once the child experiences the routine happening consistently (even with crying), they know that Mommy knows what she is doing and she has created the needed structure of a routine. Mom is kind, soothing and empathetic during the crying, but the routine continues.
Lucy used the complaint “I have an owie. Kiss my owie!” to stop the routine during transition periods. Behaviour modification strategies like ignore/praise suggest that you ignore these complaints until they are extinguished. However, I have found that acknowledging the complaint as legitimate but putting limits on when and how Mommy will respond to be less severe and a more pleasant experience for parent and child. The assumption that the owie is fake/a procrastination method is still just an adult assumption. Your child may very well have an actual owie. Therefore, I would rather acknowledge that what the child says is true (to them), but that Mommy can still set limits as to how she will address the complaint. I think that this method fosters a more trusting relationship where it is no longer Mommy’s responsibility to figure out if the child is lying about an owie. Mommy does not need to engage in that power struggle.
After only a few days of implementing the Nap Time script and the Going Outside script, my sister felt more prepared and calm during her child’s tantrums. And shockingly (even to me), the crying duration reduced almost immediately. The child would start crying and Mommy would remind her that “it’s ok to cry but we are still going to put on a clean diaper (or whatever step)” and the child would comply. Interestingly, the child did not then cry through nap; she simply went to sleep at the end of the routine. If the child cried while putting on outside clothes, she stopped when it was finished and went outside. Her mood was pleasant for the rest of the activity. Once my sister started feeling prepared and having success with getting through transitions, she was able to adapt the transition scripts to include offering choice (“who is going to put on your mitts? Mommy or Lucy?”) and the child would respond to the choice!
These methods do not solve every tantrum. There are a million reasons why a child might have a tantrum on any given day, but the strategy reduced the frequency and duration of the tantrums enough so that Mom felt calm, Mom was able to connect with the child during the transition, and the child and Mom were able to continue with their day in a pleasant mood.
Further analysis and reflection
When I first read Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, it implied that one always needs to wait out a tantrum and be an empathetic witness. Generally, I have done just that with my daughter, and it has worked well. I feel calm and in control of myself and I just witness my daughter crying while offering soothing words or cuddles when sought. However, there are cases (sibling care, medical appointments, emergencies, etc.) where you cannot just let the child tantrum for as long as they need. Sometimes there is an urgency to the situation where you do need to move forward with an activity. Typically, the special note for the transition scripts of continuing with a routine “even when [Child’s name] is crying” only works with young children because it requires you to physically manipulate them against their will (get them dressed, strap them into a car seat, change their diaper, etc.). These methods are not ideal. We would prefer cooperation. And over time, theoretically, if you can do enough preventative measures (like sequencing, transition songs, routine charts, etc.), the child would never need to be forced through a routine during a tantrum. However, I do not know anyone who never gets caught in tantrum patterns or emergencies. The hope is that over time, you create a respectful relationship (especially built during non-transition times) that nurtures their interest in working harmoniously with the family such that when they are too big to physically handle, you will not have the need!
One of the reasons I think I have had success with sequencing and transition scripts with my own child is because I consciously build in respectful interactions with my child. I take time to notice the things that are most distracting (of interest) to my child and build time into the day for her to pursue that distraction (see “procrastinating pursuit” in the list). For example, my daughter hated the car seat from early on (birth and onwards!). She would have a meltdown every time I tried to strap her in. I was lucky enough to be able to choose not to drive for a few months to avoid the situation completely. Then, I reintroduced driving in the car with scripts, sequencing and play time. I noticed that my daughter wanted to explore the car seat, belts, back seat, car toys, etc. so I built in 30 minutes of time before we needed to leave such that she could play in the car. I did this frequently enough in the beginning (every car trip) that by 2.5-3 years old, I was able to tell my daughter that, “yes, we have time for play in the car” or “no, today is not a day for playing in the car, but we will try to make time for that on our next trip” and she complied with my explanation. She was confident that I took her car play (“procrastinating pursuit”) seriously and that I really do try to allow her to explore her interests. I respect her as another human being with interests that I may or may not share!
Why don’t you just use behaviour modification techniques like ignore/praise?
You could use behaviour modification techniques for this situation and many people do! I think one of the reasons parents may rely heavily on behaviour modification strategies is because they can gain a child’s obedience relatively quickly and so they feel they have success. Of course, you might find, like me, that certain situations appear to be made worse by behaviour modification (see my blog post on behaviour modification), so some other method must be used. In the long-term though, I do not know of a mechanism for behaviour modification to increase the trust or closeness of the parent-child relationship. However, I feel that using sequencing, scripts and “indulging the child’s procrastinating pursuit” builds confidence in the child that the parent knows what they are doing (creating structure and predictable routine) and is respectful of the child’s opinions and interests (carving out time for an interest). Providing time is about the most respectful thing a person can do for a relationship. On how many occasions, as an adult, have you preferred that your partner or friend makes time for you instead of giving you a gift?
Since writing this blog (but not actually publishing it), my sister’s experience with the scripts has evolved. Her child started crying again during the transition period, but this time, the crying was at a later step. While in the crib, just before my sister would normally leave the room, the child cried and fussed and did not settle. I suggested transitioning to sleep on a mat on the floor instead of the crib and that seemed to solve the issue. The child is still not a perfect napper. She still resists naps more than my own child, but she is having fewer tantrums than before. This particular family endures more disruptive transition periods than many, simply due to the circumstances of other family members, so it makes a lot of sense that this child is having to cope with more stresses that build up and need to be released. In future, there may be other, more convenient, times in the day when Mom could try to trigger a cry to allow the child to process these stresses without disrupting sleep times.
In my next post I will discuss how we announced our pregnancy to our change-averse three year old!