Empathic Parenting Counseling and Coaching

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Ask a Therapist: 4-Year-Old Having Difficulty with Transitions

Q: My four and a half year old is having an extremely difficult time right now with transitions. I know part of it is her age, and part of it is that her school year just came to a close, but every single time we have to transition from one thing to another (dinner to getting ready for bed, leaving an activity or place to go home, etc.), we have tears, negotiations, running away, and sometimes even full-on tantrums. I always try to give a two-minute warning before we end an activity, and I always have a talk with her about what’s going to happen. When she gets upset, I have been sitting and talking it out with her, but she has now realized she can use that as a tactic to delay doing the transition. I’m not really sure what to do, especially in situations where it is actually crucial that we leave. I understand her want and need to be involved in where she goes and what she does with her own body, but there are times when she can’t fully make that choice by herself (like bedtime. Seriously, she would never go to sleep.) I have been trying to remain empathetic and patient, but honestly, I’m so exhausted by the constant tears and tantrums that I’m basically avoiding playdates and any unnecessary outings because I don’t want to navigate yet another meltdown.
A: Oh mama, I wish I could bring you a babysitter and a big ol’ glass of wine. Phases like this are exhausting. The meltdowns, the negotiations, the delays. It can feel impossible to go anywhere or get anything done. I can’t bring reinforcements, but I do have a few suggestions and some reading material to consider.

Create Structure

If your child is freshly out of school, odds are she has become accustomed to a certain routine. Even if you hope to have a relaxed summer, begin with a routine to ease the transition out of the school year. Some families create storyboards detailing the routines of the day, and this visual reminder works well for a lot of kids. If that seems like too much work (it always seems like a cool idea, but personally I will never get around to making one), I suggest giving more notice that two minutes and adopting a consistent rhythm to the day. You could talk about your day in the morning and offer little reminders throughout the day. It also might help if you get some engagement from her before you begin the transition. As you’re sitting down to lunch you might say, “after lunch it will be time to go to the library. What kind of book will you look for there?” She might need a little time to get excited about the next activity before she even has to think about transitioning to it.

Read: Routines that Toddlers Can Understand


Just because you implement a routine doesn’t mean your days have to be busy. If you’re seeing increased tantrums and rigidity, I would consider keeping life calm and quiet for a week and see what happens. This downtime might provide the whole family with a mental reboot.
You might consider spending a few days close to home just playing in the backyard, reading, eating, and sleeping. If your daughter is an extrovert, you could invite a good friend over to spend the day in your yard, too. When we’re in a difficult phase, I call upon my dearest friends to come and play with us. I know they won’t judge us when the playdate inevitably falls apart.
Read: Minimalistic Parenting

Set Boundaries

I remember when my son was a baby I saw an article circulating the web about the three words that will change your parenting, “Asked and answered.” This was meant to be used when our children delay, negotiate, or make a request a million times, as in, “Can we please stay at the park a little longer?” It always seemed curt and kind of bitchy to me (still does), but now that my son is older I appreciate the concept.
Some kids are master negotiators. This is a good life skill. They’re able to see a lot of different solutions and are savvy about getting their needs met. It’s also totally exhausting for parents. We can appreciate this life skill and still remain consistent with our boundaries. When there isn’t any wiggle room, we do our kids a great favor by telling them this, explaining why, and then resisting the bait of lengthy negotiations and debates. When there is wiggle room, we can hear them out and set a limit on how long we’re willing to engage in a discussion.
Your energy is precious, and it’s important that you don’t allow endless negotiations to drain your reserve. Dr. Laura Markham suggests that when we’re overwhelmed with negotiations and don’t feel like we have the energy for them, we pull rank. We collaborate with our kids when it’s appropriate and to the extent that we’re able. And when we aren’t able, we simply don’t.
Read: Negotiating with Your Child

Start Earlier

If you know you need to leave the house at a certain time and that transitions are a struggle, give yourself a 20 minute buffer. Your daughter probably isn’t going to share your agenda, so you need extra time to make sure you can actually get out the door. As parent coach Meghan Leahy explains, “the average 4-year-old is not concerned with our adult schedule, even if it has to do with him and his well-being.” Leahy also suggests validating emotions, “even while moving him along.” You can validate your daughter’s frustration while simultaneously staying focused on what needs to happen.
Read: 4-year-old Dawdles

During difficult phases, I try to keep life as basic as possible. That way I have more energy for the emotional hurricanes and less anxiety about getting everything done despite the difficulty we’re experiencing. Remember to take good care of yourself right now so that you can be sure you have the energy and patience for your little one.

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0 thoughts on “Ask a Therapist: 4-Year-Old Having Difficulty with Transitions

  1. As a therapist I teach parents that helping kids with their emotions is like a dance between two people. The parent leads that dance with empathy and understanding but remains firm about the limits. One other thing that is sometimes helpful is for transition times too.

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