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Child Having Trouble Transitioning Between Activities? Here's How to Help

When it's time for your family to leave an activity or event does your child melt down and refuse to leave? Many parents have been in this situation, but if it happens all the time and you can't find a solution, your child may have a delay in cognitive flexibility. In this video, Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, director of Think:Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital explains how to help your family navigate this often stressful moment.


Hi, I'm Dr. Stuart Abalon, the director of Think:Kids in the Department of Psychiatry here at Mass General Hospital. And here at Think:Kids, we often hear from families that are struggling with their kids' behavior. And despite trying really hard to address that behavior and trying to be very thoughtful about it, the behavior's not improving. And it's super frustrating. And many of these situations seem like a perfect fit for what we teach here at Think Kids, which is called collaborative Problem Solving.

A family wrote in to us and said when it's time for their family to leave somewhere, their seven-year-old suddenly decides that they don't want to leave. And they said this has been happening every day this week, and the behavior's not improving but instead getting worse. They talk about it afterward, and their child knows that it's not okay to refuse to leave like this. They don't want to yell; they don't want to chase their kid down. They don't want to have to physically remove them, nor do they want to have to just wait it out.

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They are basically aware these aren't reasonable or effective solutions, and they're worried that when these things happen in public places, it may not be safe if things continue to escalate and they run. And let's be honest, it's also fairly embarrassing as well. So the first thing I would say is, remember, this is about SKILL, not WILL. It is really easy in a situation like this to just describe this to a willful child who just doesn't want to leave. And you know, when I talk to families, usually they'll say, well, you know, they're happy to leave if it's something they don't like. And if we're going to go somewhere super exciting, like getting ice cream or something like that, well then, you know, there's no problem leaving. So doesn't that show that this is just sort of under their control, and it's just a question of whether they want to or not? So maybe we just need to make it in their best interest. And I would say, you know what? It's not that simple. In fact, you know, they may be leaving something they're enjoying doing to go do something less enjoyable. But if you look around, if there are a whole bunch of other kids involved in this kind of activity, your kid is probably one of the few that might be flipping out in response. So, in other other words, there are a lot of kids who probably also don't want to leave but aren't having such a difficult time managing.

You know, it reminds me in a school setting of when it's time to come in from recess, you know, usually if you've got, say 25 kids or something, there are a few that are really going to struggle with that transition, whereas 23 of them might come right on in. And is that because the other 23 prefer math to recess? Probably not. They probably would prefer to stay in recess as well. But they have an easier time managing transitions. And that, folks, is a skill. It's a skill that we clinicians call shifting cognitive set, that is shifting from one mindset or task or activity to another. It's really a form of cognitive flexibility. So the first thing to keep in mind is this is about skill, not will.

And in your conversations with your child, you want to explain that. You want to say something like, "You know what, I know that you don't like it when this goes poorly like this as well. And when we're chasing after you or raising our voices and things that can't be fun as well. And I know that you would like this to go smoothly also." Now the trick to a conversation focused on Collaborative Problem Solving is don't try to do it in the heat of the moment when you're trying to get your kid to leave. It sounds like in this family's situation, they know that this is going to be occurring because it's been happening day in and day out. And so the time to have these conversations is proactively, and that doesn't mean in the car on the way to the thing that they're going to have a hard time leaving.

It means catch them when they're calm, accessible, when it's not right in front of you, or the situation's not just about to happen. And what you want to do is you want to start by just bringing it up. But don't bring it up in a way that is going to frustrate your kid and have them on the defensive immediately. Bring it up by reassuring them. "Don't worry. You're not in trouble. We just noticed that when it's time to leave the soccer field, you get pretty frustrated, and it looks like you're having a hard time leaving. You're not in trouble. We just want to help." And then you go into empathy mode. And empathy mode doesn't mean just expressing your understanding. It means trying to gather information from your child. "Fill us in. What's that been like for you, and what's going on when that happens? Can you help us understand why it's so hard to leave?"

And it may be that it's just as simple as they're enjoying it, and they have a hard time moving from one thing to the next. But you might be surprised. You might gather some other useful information. And once you understand their perspective or point of view about it, you simply explain why this is a problem from your perspective. And that might have to do with safety. It might have to do with the timing of moving from one thing to the next. It might have to do with the fact that it's unpleasant for you and for them, and you'd like to make it easier. And then what you do is invite them to the problem-solving table by saying, "I wonder what we could do about this so that we could make it easier for you and smoother for us? And the whole thing would go a lot better."

Now I have a lot of faith in a seven-year-old's ability to come up with good solutions to problems because I've seen it firsthand time and time again. But in this case, I also want us adults to be thinking like preschool teachers because, you know, in preschool, all kids have a hard time making transitions. It's developmentally appropriate to have a hard time shifting cognitive set in preschool. And that's why if you ever visit a preschool class, you see when it's time to move from one task or activity to another, even when it's just time to go to the bathroom, it's a major party. You know, there are lights that turn on and off. There's songs that you sing, there's claps, there's all kinds of things that people do to try to demarcate that transition and ease people into it.

And I want us to think that way with a kid who's having a hard time making a transition. They may be seven, but their skill level may be more like a preschooler in this domain. And what you'll learn from preschool teachers is some tricks to the trade. Like, make sure you prepare people and have a clear signal for when this is happening. Try to lengthen the transition so it doesn't just stop on a dime, and give your kid an active role in negotiating that transition. Have you ever noticed a very skilled preschool teacher who finds the kid who has the hardest time shifting gears? And when it's time to play the chime to indicate it's time to shift gears, that's the kid they ask if they want to be the one to play the chime to signal the transition. So, in other words, find a way to give your child an active role, something they can do, something so that the transition isn't just being done to them.

Hopefully, that combination of some ideas you can come to the problem-solving table with if needed, as well as your child's perspective. And brainstorming can make it easier trying to negotiate this. But remember, you're in it together. This is Collaborative Problem Solving. Your kids are doing the best they can to handle that situation, given the skills that they have in the moment. And our job as parents is to try to help them support, help support them through it, and help them build those skills through situations like this. Hope this is helpful.


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