Thursday, January 28, 2010

Helping children with transitions

By R. Scott Benson, M.D.

Before the New Year I shared the story of the family who was having trouble getting going in the morning. I touched on a couple of general principles for improving behavior. Structure, not punishment. Measuring the problem, and measuring the results.  Let me give another example.

Many children have trouble with transitions – moving from one planned activity to the next. The underlying problem is likely anger at being deprived of the fun of this activity and a little bit of anxiety about the unknown of the next activity. They might know in their thinking brain that the next activity will be fun, but the impulsive emotion for many children is fear. They have to “get a grip” on this fear in order to move to the next activity.

A mother asked for help with managing the meltdowns her four year old had when it was time to leave grandmother’s to go home. And it was frustrating because there had been a similar meltdown when they first left home to go to the grandmother. And he was having a great time while he was there.

Our plan – engage her child in a discussion. And these discussions are much later, even another day, or a Saturday morning. “I have noticed that when we are at grandmother’s and I say ‘It’s time to go home.’ Ka-boom. A meltdown. (You need to find a name for the behavior you want to eliminate. That way you have a code word for what you are measuring). Well, is there another way I could say it so that you didn’t get into your meltdown and waste 15 or 20 minutes.”

Your child might have a suggestion or no clue. Offer something silly like – “The lettuce is wilting.” This absurd statement when it is time to go will get him in his thinking brain trying to figure out what you are talking about. Use this as a starting point to script him for the transition. “I will say, ‘The lettuce is wilting.’ And you will say, ‘Does that mean it is time to go?’ And I will say, ‘Yes.’”

Practice this script two or three times until everybody has their words right. Then take it for a field test at grandmother’s. If there is success keep track with punch cards that can be traded for something reflecting the “time saved”. Maybe a movie.

If unsuccessful, re-work the script and practice, practice, practice.

Are there other behaviors that are a challenge at your house? Have you found strategies for success?

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