One of the most challenging moments with young children are during a “transition.” A transition is when you are moving from one activity to the next. Transitions often mean that your young child has to stop playing or doing something he loves to shift into naptime, mealtime, bedtime, or to go somewhere else.

Reasons transitions can be hard include toddlers can get very focused on what they are doing, they don’t have a sense of time, they likely don’t WANT to do the next thing, or they might go into fight-or-flight if the next thing involves separation from you. Also, the developing toddler brain just isn’t wired to make the connection that stopping one activity to start another is okay because you can come back to the fun thing again later.

The keys to smooth transitions are planning ahead, not rushing, and keeping your cool. Children can feel your stress and know when you get into hurry-mode. Give transitions lots of time in your schedule. If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for this!” make time because toddlers will freak out if you push them too quickly through a transition. (I’m sure you already know that.)

Toddlers are also usually going through the, “ME DO IT!” phase, which might complicate your transition plan. Especially if you rush to do it for him—and he completely freezes and screams, “NO! ME…ME do it.” Anyone else have to take off all the outdoor clothes on a wailing child so he can start over and do it all himself? Yup. That.

Here are some general tips to help make transitions smoother:

Manage your frustration.

Think of your calm down plan and decide what steps work to calm you down and do those steps each time you feel like snapping. If you feel your frustration growing and are having a hard time following your plan, try “fake it ‘till you make it.” I sometimes make the words come out calmly even though my inside voice is losing it. My husband told me I get a ridiculous high-pitched voice when I’m doing this, but my kids don’t seem to notice.

This is when your calm outside voice says, “It is car seat time. Let’s see if you can get in there before I count to four (close eyes) one… two…” In this scenario, my inside voice is usually saying, “JUST GET IN YOUR F***ING SEAT!” Sometimes just thinking about that makes me laugh and diffuse my anger. Be calm. Don’t yell during transitions.

Know your child’s ability to shift gears. How long is your child’s runway?

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking said that introverts will eventually take off, but sometimes they just need a longer runway. I LOVE this quote and remember it often. Can your child handle a quick shift with only one warning, or does your child do better with twenty minutes of a routine to let him know the next activity is coming. Once you understand what kind of routine is needed, make one.

Establish a transition routine and use it every time an activity shift is happening.

1) Start the routine with a signal, then use warning steps until the transition time.

An example of a signal is getting down to eye-level with your young child and saying, “___ time is coming. After ___ , then we are going to ___.” Or, “Eating time is coming. After the timer beeps, then we will sit at the table.” You might recognize the “after/then” or “when/then” as those are great to use in the transition routine signal.

Other examples of signals are going close to your child and whispering or having something like a “clean up bell” or “clean up song.” The Little Gym uses the same clean up song each time and we used that at our house, too. “It’s time to put the sticks away, sticks away. It’s time to put the sticks away at The Little Gym.”

2) Use some form of timer or counting down system.

Use a countdown like three warnings or a timer that makes a sound. Some families use a clock and say, “When the long hand touches the 12, then___,” but for some reason, seeing numbers count down like a microwave timer helps the shift go smoother. You are welcome to use any form of warning system or time reference that your child understands.

If you are using verbal warnings, give a time reference the child can understand. “Minutes” might a foreign concept t your young child so use a “when/then” like, “This is your first warning. When this song finishes, then you get one more song until it is time to sit at the table.”

Here is another post I wrote about using a morning routine to get kids out the door without battles.

Remember to use short, clear instructions.

Keep the instructions to two-three word sentences and get rid of, “Okay?” Use simple language so your child knows exactly what to do first. If you are doing tidy time, “It’s tidy time” might be too vague. Tell your child specifically what to mean: “Animals go here.” (Point to the animal bin.) On that note, putting things away is SO much easier if there is a clearly marked “away spot” for the toys. Take the time to have an away spot for each thing so you can say, “Don’t put it down, put it AWAY.” -Rivka Caroline of SoBe Organized

Be consistent.

Most people—adults, too—like to know what’s coming. This is why routines often help reduce wild behaviour. The surprise of shifting to an un-fun activity from a fun one can bring uncertainty and emotional flooding. Use the same transition signal and routine each time. It’s okay to switch up the routines for each regular event like getting out the door, coming back home again, and something like bedtime. I use a song to let my kids know when it is time to leave their friend’s house but use a different signal for bedtime.

If the transition is starting to feel like a power struggle (both you and your child are trying to “win”), give your child at least one part of the signal or warning routine that is their choice. “Do you want the timer for 10 minutes? Or three songs?”

Be fun.

Anytime you can make a transition fun, it will go easier. I use races or being silly to avert tantrums during transitions.

For example: “It’s time to brush our eye balls!” instead of saying “teeth.” Your child will likely say, “No mommy! TEETH!” Then you can continue, “Okay, right! Let’s go brush our toes.” Then scoop your child up and pretend to brush her toes on her way to the bathroom.

Or, “It’s tooth-brushing time. I’m going to the bathroom on one foot! Do you think I can do it? How are you getting there?”

And for races, “I’m going to get my jacket on first! Don’t you dare try to beat me!”

Instead of, “Do you have to pee?” (Of course she’ll say, “NO!”) Try this while pretending to run to the bathroom, “I have to pee! You better not pee before me! EEEE — I have to gooooo.”

These things can sabotage a smooth transition:

-Any form of compromise: hungry, tired, over-stimulated

-If you are yelling at your child

-Surprising your child with a new signal or no warning

-If your child’s wish for independence gets ignored, “ME do it!”  — “No… I’ll just put your coat on.”

-If your child’s attachment tank is nearing empty

-If your child hasn’t had time to get her “ya-yas” out or do some free-play (run, get fresh air, sweat a bit)

-Also, if your child is close to finishing something but isn’t able to communicate that. If your child gets that “I’m about to blow!” look in her eyes, try asking, “What do you need to do in order to be done?” Or this, “What is left so you feel ready?” Seriously, this question has saved tantrums in our house MANY times. Remember this!

Often when a child just gets a couple more minutes to finish her picture, she will cooperate with the transition.


Letting the child negotiate for more time—every time. It is okay if on a rare occasion, you use one of the questions directly above, but don’t negotiate like this, “Just five more minutes…. Pleeeeaaaaase?!”  “Oh, okay, you can have five more minutes.” You have just inadvertently told your child she can push for an extension and may do so each and every time.

If you use the question, “What do you need to do in order to be done?” in combination with a “when/ then,” your child might not try to push you each transition time.  Here is an example: “It is coat-on time. First warning—I’ll come back and tell you when it is second warning.”

“NO! I don’t want to gooooo!”

“Are you working on something?” nodding yes.

“Oh, okay. How do I know when you are done?”

“I’m done when the face is coloured.”

“Alright, when you are done the face, then it is coat-on time.” Then smile. Your child will likely feel more power and that you heard her. “I look forward to seeing it all finished.”

When the transition goes sour and everyone is losing it.

I admit it; I have shoved a screaming toddler or two into a snowsuit. Some days, filling attachment tanks or remembering to signal and warn can feel like major chores. On the days when everyone is melting down, please just remember these two things:

1)    Calm yourself even if your child is too far gone, and

2)    Do no harm. This is usually when parents do something that can sever the relationship with their child.

Firmly, but not aggressively, do what you need to but keep yourself in control. I’ll tell you that if you put your hand under a back-arching toddler’s knee and lift it up, his bum will automatically drop into the car seat. Make sure you get that between-the-legs buckle done first as fast as you can. Get the child in the seat—don’t bother talking over the shrieking—then go in the driver seat and take ten long breaths. Even if you are late for a doctor’s appointment, take those few minutes to breathe because making the shift into your rational mind is vital. Put on some classical minutes and drive. Tomorrow is a new day.