Some experiences are universally relatable.
Your toddler is happily prancing in the living room when you enter the scene to tell her she has to wear pants to go to school right away. She runs away from you only to have you chase her around while she wails and screams in protest.
Your baby is playing peek-a-boo with a friend in the park and you realise it’s time for lunch and pick him up to head back indoors. He kicks his legs, arches his back and defies you with all his might.
Transitions are a normal part of life. We make several transitions as we go through our day. We go from leaving a gripping story halfway to having dinner; we go from playing tennis with a friend to heading back home. We navigate such transitions effortlessly because we have an understanding of time and can reason through the changes. We know it is time to shift gears to something else and cannot keep reading the book, however gripping it maybe. But, say, you plan on painting for the next hour while you receive a call saying there’s an emergency. Now, you need to rush to the hospital. How do you go from being that calm person who thought she can happily paint to becoming this serious person who now has to rush to the hospital?
Typically, after the initial shock, we resort to reason and mental chatter. We talk to ourselves rationally, “Okay, take deep breaths! My friend has met with an accident! Let me pack up my easel and paint. Now, what do I need to do? I need to turn off the kettle which is boiling water for my tea. Next, let me call my friend’s family. I can then change my clothes and drive to the ER.”
Our mental chatter and our rational brain takes charge during transitions and help us ride these efficiently.
Why do children struggle?
But, children cannot effortlessly glide through transitions like we do. They react to this change that forces them to break-free from their momentum and recenter in a different direction. Children have neither the words for mental chatter nor the complexity of thoughts for brooding that we resort to during transitions. What they have are feelings – big feelings – that protest against change: this fun book has ended and I feel sad. I don’t want it to end.
So, how can we help children navigate these transitions as smoothly as they possibly can?
Plan A : Daily Rhythm & Preparing in Advance
There is something about the rhythm of daily life that acts as a balm during transitions. When we have a somewhat predictable rhythm to our child’s day, they know what is coming next. They know they usually head outdoors once they wake up from nap. So, they don’t have as much trouble in getting their footwear even if they are mildly groggy from having just woken up.
However, some transitions are more abrupt and less predictable. Such transitions require a little more preparation from our end. It is ideal if we can prepare them in advance, “ I know I usually drop you off at school but today I won’t be able to drop you. Appa will drop you instead. I will be there to pick you up.”
Plan B : Transition Blocks
If we neither have the balm of daily rhythm nor the time to prepare children in advance, we need to resort to the second option. Let them feel what they need to as they navigate through this unprepared transition – “I understand you feel awful that we have to say bye-bye to your friend. But, we will see her again next week. Would you like to give her a hug now?” Letting children have their feelings expressed is so important for us and them to acknowledge the emotions triggered by the transition. As they have these big feelings, we can offer them the words to reassure them. Instead of stopping them from crying or wailing, “Stop. You are making a scene now,” we can soothe them through the transition.
Another essential ingredient during abrupt (sometimes all) transitions are blocks of time to help children ride the change. We often expect children to magically accept the change of momentum and move on. They simply cannot move on from the book to eating a snack the way we do. Instead, offering them transition blocks to simply ride that change, and get used to the change is incredibly useful. Time gifts them that space to feel what they are feeling and readies their mind for the change.
Feelings are not a side component of a life well lived; they are the essential ways we live as a whole embodied being.Daniel Siegel, The Science and Practice of Presence.
Change is one of those futile things about life that we simply cannot control. We learn to accept them and that’s what we want children to learn. But, children are not there yet. They live in the present moment which means they are not thinking of the million other things that need to be done after dinner. They are unable to rationalise through the transition as their brains are not ready for such tasks. They savor the now. So, we must give them the extra helping of time and our soothing words to ride that change as best as they can. And, if in the process, they wail and protest, then we need to give them a safe space to do so.