Transitions are hard for children. Change is actually difficult for all human beings to handle well, but children can experience this anxiety not just when they are leaving a neighborhood or their school, but just when they are leaving the park or their toys and free time behind.
If you have two (or four) children having a psychosomatic melt down in most towns, you have the option of just herding the screaming victims into your minivan. For families living in major cities, handling transitions is more important because transportation requires more cooperation; you can’t just strap the screaming tykes into the minivan and plug the movie in. (Transitions are critical moments of high emotion that must be handled well by any city-trekking mom. Firstly because of safety: public transit—and actually also just walking the city—often requires immediate and complete obedience.) I am thankful for this part of city life because I don’t want to be the kind of mother who allows my kids to carry on–unaddressed–when I am trying to travel or get something done, and I am thankful that the city doesn’t give me the chance. I want to address anguish, disappointment, fear. Always. I want to train my children how to stick to schedules even when they are having fun. How to appropriately express frustration. How to negotiate with the person in charge of them and how to control themselves when that authority says no. But whether you are raising your family in the suburbs or the city, life skills are being taught in this situation whether we realize it or not. Here are some things I have learned about handling transitions for myself, and for kids:
1. Be pro-active not reactive.
Accept that reactions to transitions are likely to happen with small children. By anticipating the problem you can come up with a strategy of how to handle it. Your strategy could be: “Adeleigh, if you scream when we leave Sarah’s house we will have to walk it off instead of taking the bus. You have to be calm to get on the bus.” There are few wrong strategies. Just communicate your plan of action before the melt down happens. When a child is in distress is the worst possible time to communicate anything, including the often futile life lessons or consequence options you’re trying to give them. Communicate the plan before hand: “If you cry, we will walk home. If you don’t we will ride the bus.” Shorter is better. As the child gets older, this is something that you can have a conversation about, and have them help formulate and agree to. When the problem happens, you have already accepted that the problem is likely to occur. You will not be frazzled and thus able to communicate a sense of calm and authority which will help your child regain their own balance more quickly. You can implement the plan firmly, reminding your child briefly why, having had already taken the time to have a sane conversation before the ‘crisis’.
2. Implement the same pro-active plan.
Having the same plan consistently is ideal. If I am not consistent with my discipline, my children cannot predict consequences. Children’s ability to predict how their actions will effect things, and to choose behavior based on her perceived outcomes is the basis of self discipline (which should be the end goal).
3. Don’t become dependent on bribes.
A thought on bribes: alot of parents bribe their children as a part of their ‘bag of tricks’ to get the behavior they need. There is a doughnut shop on the way home from a friend’s house we often go to. I could included in my (sticks and carrots) strategies to do things like buy a 85 cent doughnut. Using food or generally buying anything is a dangerous reward system that only get more out of hand the longer it’s implemented. I want to be the kind of person who rewards hard work with an early morning walk down to the river by myself with a warm mug of tea to hold. Or a run along the same. 25 cent bouncy balls turn into 80 dollar jeans and I wish both of us could skip all that and be happy in the sunshine on a bench people watching. So pass by the food and purchase rewards and hook your kids on the good things in life. You might start to find yourself enjoying them more too. Ultimately the best motivation for obedience should be the bond of love that fosters calm, and the child’s willingness to leave something behind to continue on to the next thing with their mother.
4. Leave early.
The pace of our lives is increasingly misaligned with the pace of childhood. There should be no reason for any two year old anywhere to be rushed on a regular basis. A mom I really admire in NYC with four kids says the number one thing that has enhanced her experience of living in the city has been to allow a twenty minute buffer every time she leaves the house with the kids. It’s enough to stop and talk to a neighbor sitting out, to spy a new park half a block in the wrong direction of your route and to go take a run around it. It’s enough time for your child to make a new friend with a homeless man, a puppy, a caterpillar, a street pigeon that has forgotten it is a bird. It is enough time for them to be their age.
5. Have calming rituals.
Rituals and down time can create a calm that holds a sense of spaciousness in life. This space allows experiences to settle and fosters thoughtfulness. Small pleasant rituals like tasks or time to sit on a bench, or even your front stoop before you go in, gives your child space to think about what happened before and what’s next. Often, our schedule mandates that we go from the park to do errands like shopping or laundry. So I’ll tell Adeleigh that we are going from the park to go climb the flowering tree that’s on the way home. Or we’ll go find a ‘story bench’ where we sit, watch people, and tell stories about their lives. Leaving one play station for another is easier than ‘play time is over’. And since story benches and trees are only fun for so long for a two year old, those are easily left too.
6. Unpleasant rituals are even better.
I learned this from a mom who could not get her kids out the door on time in the morning. It did not matter how early they woke up. 7:00. 6:45. 6:20. 6:00. Then she implemented chore time. In the morning. Before school. Each chore was only a ten minute job: sweep the hallway, straighten the shoe cubbies at the front, empty the house trash cans etc. The children would get totally ready and then do their one chore. The point wasn’t always that the floor got finished, sometimes it didn’t, but wake up time bounced back to where it should be–7:00am,– and the children were VERY HAPPY to leave their home, and chores, behind for school. We also implement this at the park by having exercising time before we leave. This principle has a hundred variations if you give it a little imagination.