Supporting Healthy Transitions in Toddlers

Category: Play Therapy

If you’ve spent time with a toddler, then you know getting them to do something is often not easy.  Getting them to bed, asking them to clean up their toys or dropping them off at daycare can elicit tears and really big feelings. 

Transitions are the process of changing from one state of being to another and they can be hard for anyone but are especially tough on toddlers. That’s because toddlers live in the moment and have no real concept of time, yet.  They are also just beginning to grasp language and finally comprehending what is being asked of them. Simultaneously, from a developmental perspective, they are learning to assert their independence.

Toddlers need guidance on how to transition from one activity to the next.  It’s a skill, like everything else, and an important part of their development.  It doesn’t always have to end in tears and tantrums.  This post is going to highlight some of the tried and true strategies parents and caregivers can use to make transitions a little easier on toddlers.

  1. Use simple language.

Keep your words brief and simple.  Too many words can overload a toddler’s brain.  Instead of explaining why you need to put shoes on in order to go to the grocery store to get food for dinner, get down on their level and softly say one or two words.  Instead, simply say “Shoes on”.

  1. Give warning. 

Toddlers need a heads up when it comes to transitions.  Unlike adults, toddlers can’t instantly stop what they are doing and switch to something else.  They have no sense of time and only exist in the present moment.  Saying you will be leaving in 5 minutes means nothing to them.  Instead try using a timer, on your cell phone or microwave, and show your child you’re setting it.  Tell them when they hear the bell it’ll be time to clean up and go.  While you’re waiting for the timer to ring, it can be helpful to prep your child and state your expectations.  For example, try starting 5 minutes sooner than you normally would and tell your child: “When you hear the bell, I’ll put your shoes and jacket on”.

  1. Offer choices.

Toddlers like to be in control and they can be more accommodating if they get to help make decisions. This doesn’t mean they get to do what they want, but it means you have to create the parameters.  A good rule of thumb is to offer two choices, anything more than that is overwhelming.  Be sure that you are okay with either of the choices.  Don’t suggest an option that you’re not okay with.  For example, when trying to get your child to put their shoes on say “Do you want to wear your red shoes or blue shoes”.

When it comes to parenting a toddler you are laying the foundation for the future.  The goal is to lovingly show up with patience as you support them through this developmental period.  If you feel like you need help in developing parenting skills, we have therapists available at Treehouse Counseling Services.

Christine Holmberg, LMFT