1. Give advance warning. You can’t expect kids to stop what they’re doing on a dime. And time is a blurry concept to toddlers, so “We have to leave in ten minutes” is not meaningful. If your child is engrossed in his play, but you need to take him with you, start preparing him in advance. Set a timer to ring five minutes before you want your child to get ready. Tell him that when the bell rings, it’ll be time to go. And while you’re waiting, say something like, “When you hear the bell ring, I’ll help you put on your shoes and put the puzzle away, and then we’ll get into the car and go.” When the bell goes off, reiterate that it’s time to get ready to go. If a timer isn’t an option (you’re at the playground, for example), use references relevant to your child: “I’ll push you on the swing ten times, and then we have to go.”
2. Develop rituals. To make transitions that involve separation, such as being cared for by someone else, the predictability of a set routine gives a child a sense of control and order. When dropping your child off at day care, you might give her three kisses and then ask for three in return, or read your child two books before walking out the door—whatever works to help your child predict what’s going to happen next.
3. Keep your language simple. Making your words brief can short-circuit power struggles. Rather than explaining why your toddler needs to come to the dinner table, try kneeling down right in front of her and whispering a one-word description of what she’ll be eating. All a child needs to hear is “soup” or “spaghetti,” and she’ll probably be happy to put the toys aside and move on to her next activity—mealtime.
4. Offer choices. Presenting your child with options gives him lots of room to cooperate. But don’t give too many, and make sure that the choices are not whether to comply, but how to comply. For example, don’t say, “Do you want to put on your shoes?” if “No” isn’t an option. Instead, you might say, “Do you want to wear shoes or sandals?”
5. Avoid making threats. Counting down (“If you’re not on your feet by the time I count to ten . . . “) or threatening a time-out doesn’t work because both back a child into a corner, putting him in a position of losing face. Either he has to back down, or lose your love and approval, which is a big thing to ask of a young child.
First, tell him in a calm voice that it’s time to go, using short, simple sentences. Put your hand on your child’s shoulder, or take his hand gently and guide him to where you want him to go. If you’ve given it your best shot and your child is still balking at stopping his play, try saying, “I can see that you don’t want to come along. I’m going to help you now. I’m going to pick you up and carry you.”
6. Get down to your child’s level. It tends to be very effective when you veer away from arguing and simply change your tone of voice. Rather than running after your child holding the shirt you want him to put on and telling him to be still, get down on one knee and lower your voice to a whisper. Tell him very softly what you would like him to do.
Helping your toddler learn to make transitions smoothly will pay off in the long run. It’s doubtful that he’ll ever grin broadly as he drops his toys into the sandbox and hops into his stroller to go home for a nap. But with patience and diplomacy, you can help him take a few steps forward.
Adapted from AmericanBaby.com.