Going from one activity to another – or even one emotion to another – can be stressful for children, and the way in which they react can create more stress.
Jeffery W Petersen tells how your child’s ability to handle transition grows, and what you need to know to help make the process easier.
Birth To Two
A baby is sleeping peacefully and then wakes up, or he is laughing excitedly and suddenly becomes silent, or he is quietly playing and then starts to cry. What do these moments have in common? In each instance, the baby is making a transition, or change, in his internal state.
That may not seem remarkable at first, but the truth is, these moments are enormously meaningful. The way a child experiences them depends a lot on his temperament, and learning to negotiate transitions will help any child – whether he is naturally sunny or extremely sensitive – throughout his life.
Mums and Dads: The Transition Team
Mothers and fathers play different but crucial roles in helping babies learn to make transitions. To understand the mother’s role, think again of an infant sleeping in his crib. Just before he opens his eyes, his mother enters the room and walks over to him. As he stirs, she gently picks him up and begins to nurse him.
By adjusting her own inner state to match her baby’s, a mother enables him to make transitions. She helps him move from sleep to wakefulness not only by being there physically but also by being so sensitive to his feelings.
The father’s role is different. While a mother will anticipate an infant’s shift in emotion, adjusting her mood to the baby’s to help ease the change, a father will often do the opposite. He may stir things up and get the baby to match his mood. The effect is to arouse the child to a state of high excitement and allow him to practice coming down from that state. This is a crucial skill that will allow the baby to master a variety of important tasks later on.
Babies need help with these shifts in mood and activity because they are not experienced in the ways of their own minds and bodies. It takes a newborn about six months to learn that she won’t get stuck in a particular state – one of desperate need or even of intense excitement – and be able to return to normal.
The calming presence of the parents or caregiver during these episodes helps the baby develop the sense that things are not as frightening as they might seem.
On Their Own
Babies also have a variety of mechanisms, some inborn and some acquired, that allow them to comfort themselves and to shift from high to low gear, from excitement to calm. Some suck their thumbs or use a pacifier. Later on, some children use a traditional object, a favorite soft toy or piece of cloth that they associate with mother and nursing. That object allows them to move from one emotional state to another without losing their connection to their mothers.
Learning to experience and control states of intense emotion is one of the crucial tasks of growing up. Throughout the first two years of life, a child will face a variety of developmental challenges, such as separating from his mother both physically and psychologically, for which he will need to draw on all his inner strength. If he cannot deal with the intense emotions he will experience, the process will be far more difficult.
A parent or caregiver who is tuned into a baby’s needs is instrumental in determining how the child negotiates his first transitions – those subtle and not-so-subtle shifts that occur inside his own body. By learning to control them, he gains the ability to take on the larger life changes that will occur in the outside world.
Keeping in Mind…
- Babies must learn to move smoothly from one inner state to another – for example, from sleep to wakefulness or from a state of distress to one of calm.
- A parent or caregiver’s soothing presence during transitions provides the support the baby needs as he learns to negotiate physical and emotional changes.
Two To Five
Adults usually think of transitions as major life changes, such as moving to a new home, going back to work, or having a baby. But to a child, a transition can be any change. Whenever she has to stop doing one thing and start something else, particularly if the activity is new or unexpected, she must undergo an emotional shift.
Small Changes, Big Trouble
Let’s say that you pick up your three-year-old at the baby-sitters’ and on the way home suddenly realize you need to buy milk. “We have to make a quick stop at the store,” you tell your child, who proceeds to throw a temper tantrum. Why? Because transitions involve issues of time and space, and preschoolers often have a fuzzy notion of both. She throws a tantrum because the unanticipated stop comes between her and the place in which she mentally locates herself.
A preschooler concentrates on what he is doing in a very single-minded way, blocking out competing stimuli. Every parent has noticed what happens when children watch their favorite videos or are involved in a project that demands fine motor control, such as using crayons or piecing together a puzzle. They become so focused on the one thing they are doing that it can be very difficult if they have to do something else.
At some time almost every parent experiences the difficulties of trying to get a child to leave the playground. She struggles and misbehaves as you try to get her to leave, even though you had warmed her you would only be staying for an hour. However, an hour just isn’t the same to her as it is to you.
Fortunately, as a child gets older, his sense of time and space matures, but transitions can still be tricky. Let’s say you’re taking your five-year-old and his best friend to an amusement park. On the way there you describe the Ferris wheel, the roller coaster, and other rides you’re sure they’ll love. The two boys are beside themselves with excitement. When you arrive, the car park is nearly full and you have to park far from the entrance. After waiting in one line for tickets and in more lines for the rides, the boys start to argue over who will steer through the Tunnel of Horrors. A full-fledged fight breaks out, and your child says he wants to go home.
These youngsters didn’t know that there would be so many intervening stops between getting in the car at the start of the trip and being on the Ferris wheel. In their little imaginations the process happened much more quickly, so it’s not hard to see why they were disappointed enough to fall apart and end up fighting with each other.
What Can A Parent Do?
Parents and caregivers can minimize transition problems by keeping these three things in mind:
- Children experience transitions differently than adults do. Remember that change can be hard on children.
- Difficult behavior during transitions doesn’t necessarily indicate a discipline problem, and needn’t be handled as such.
- If a child has advance warning, he will be better equipped to handle a transition. Explain exactly what’s going to happen when a transition is coming – everything from A to Z – even if it all seems obvious to you.
You wouldn’t dream of not preparing your children for a major life change such as a move or the birth of a sibling; it’s also important to talk them through the minor ones.
Keeping in Mind…
- Try to anticipate schedule changes for preschoolers. Talking your child through even minor deviations from the routine can make a big difference in the way he learns to handle change.
- Help children be aware of the passage of time. If you are getting ready to leave the playground, you might say, “We’re going in ten minutes, so think about what you’d like to do before we leave.”
Six To Eleven
By the time a child is six, he begins to use some of the tools an adult will use in dealing with transitions. Before now, children needed their parents to smooth the way through internal changes of emotion and external changes of environment, but school-age children are developing the inner resources to handle all kinds of change more independently.
Of course, some children are cautious by nature and don’t take kindly to change. Other children aren’t fazed by the unexpected and even tend to get bored with routines. These two types of children, as well as those whose temperaments lie somewhere in between, will react differently to various transitions.
Out Of The Past
Temperament is not the whole story; the way that a six-or seven-year-old has already acquired something of a past. He knows many people beyond his immediate and extended family and has experience in the real world.
For a preschooler the idea of taking a first areoplane ride or staying overnight at his grandparents’ house may unleash his wildest fantasies. This is because a younger child simply has never done these things before, and so he must rely on his imagination. But the school-age child can depend less on his powers of fantasy and more on what he already knows. He can summon up memories of similar experiences in an effort to make sure of what will occur.
This helps him make transitions. For instance, the first day of school may bring new teachers and classmates, but the experienced child has, at least, undergone first days before. A child’s accumulated memories can help him negotiate this transition more easily than a child going to preschool for the very first time.
But sometimes, without even being aware of it, a child will change the feelings from a negative past experience into a potentially positive experience. Let’s say that a six-year-old is invited to a sleepover at her best friend’s house. At first she is excited, but as the event approaches she becomes fearful. She has occasionally had a problem with bed-wetting in the past and is apprehensive that this might happen again. So the transition from her home to her friend’s is now colored by shame, and she dreads the sleepover. (In cases when a child has had positive past experiences, she’ll anticipate sleepovers with delight.)
Sometimes the prior negative experience occurred so long ago the child doesn’t consciously remember it; she’s as mystified as anyone that she’s anxious instead of excited.
What can a parent do to help a child have an easier time negotiating these kinds of transitions? If your child tends to be cautious and sensitive to change, you need to anticipate transitions, talk about them ahead of time, and give her a lot of reassurance.
A relatively easygoing child who shows an unusual or uncharacteristically negative reaction to a situation needs a somewhat different response from her parents. Ask a few questions to see if you can connect what she is feeling to some other experience she has had. With your encouragement, she may open up and the situation may be defused.
Transitions can be hard on everyone, not just children. So learning strategies for dealing with these changes when we are young is the best way of preparing ourselves to handle the inevitable changes that occur throughout life.
Keeping in Mind…
- Because a six or seven-year-old now has a store of past experiences, new ones may not be as difficult for him to negotiate, as they were when he was younger. His memories help ease his way through transitions like starting school.
- If your school-age child is uncharacteristically negative when faced with a new situation, try to figure out why. If she is connecting it with a similar event that took place in the past, talking with her can defuse the problem.