Helping your child through a transition

Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, is a mother, writer and nurse. She worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade, in both the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the Pre-op Clinic.  She is a regular contributor to Thriving.

Meaghan_OKeeffe_1A few months ago I hit a parenting rut. It was the end of February. Between the holidays, the snow days, and some sick days, we hadn’t had a solid three-day week of pre-school in almost two months. My four-year-old son, Tommy, began to have extreme meltdowns several times a day. Because it was time to leave the house. Or it was time to put a toy down. Or it was time for bed. (Or, as it seemed to me, just because.) Each moment was an intense battle and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t navigate around the rough waters. I kept hitting the rapids. I was at my wit’s end. Enough that I pulled his pre-school teacher aside one morning, and whispered, near tears, “I don’t know what to do with him.” She reassured me this was normal and gave me some tips. I made a few changes, and within a couple of weeks, it appeared we had emerged from the whirlpool.

Big and small transitions can be hard for kids of all ages. Even summer, which is one transition that might seem like a walk in the park. Your kids are thrilled to have tons of free time and long, unstructured summer days, right?

So why is everybody cranky, whiny, and behaving like a bunch of wild animals?

As nice as it may seem to be without the structure of the school year, the transition to summertime may be rougher than you anticipate. But having a game plan in place can help smooth out those rough edges.

Pre-School and School-Age Children

Younger children crave routine; it provides comforting structure that enables a child to feel in control. They want to know what to expect. Creating routine helps them feel secure. Try to remain flexible, however. Staying too detailed and rigid can actually stress your child out. Define what will happen on most days, and work around that when needed. Visual cues can be an effective tool for kids who struggle with transitions.

In the case of my son, Tommy’s pre-school teacher suggested I use visuals to help him anticipate transitions in our routine. So I created a visual timetable, with some of the basic structure that we have each day at home. I also implemented a new bedtime routine.

crying_girlIn the evening, rather than give verbal warnings to him that we were approaching bedtime, I started to tape three “bedtime train tickets” to the wall. I then removed one at a time, every five minutes or so, until the last one came down, signaling it was time to “get on board” the train to bed. (Even though I know professionally that these kinds of techniques work with kids, I still doubted that it would really do the trick with my own son. But it did.)

Younger children also respond well to talking things out through play and story telling. If your child is displaying some new behaviors, like becoming withdrawn, crying more, or displaying increased aggression, exploring issues with these techniques will help unearth some of the thoughts your children might be experiencing when they’re unable to communicate directly.


Family routine may be just as important for adolescents. Teens with parental monitoring and family routine have demonstrated a lower risk in delinquent behaviors. While a picture board might send your teen’s eyes rolling to the back of their heads, a monthly calendar is an age-appropriate visual cue that can help define pivotal activities during the summer months. You can also help your teenager build a loose schedule to follow—one that works for them—with a few parental guidelines.

Another way to foster routine is through regular family dinners. Research has long supported that family dinners are an important cornerstone in a healthy family dynamic. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why families who eat together have healthier relationships, but one possible reason is that sharing meals provides time for communication.

Will it solve all of your relationship challenges with your teen? No. But it’s certainly a good place to start. A simple, daily practice can also help reinforce a sense of routine. Regular mindfulness-based interventions have also been shown to decrease stress, and enhance resilience and emotional regulation. One measurable and non-intimidating way to introduce the mindfulness concept is with a daily gratitude journal. The practice has been associated with improved well-being for children and adolescents. It doesn’t take much time, but can yield positive results.

Life transitions, even summer vacation, can throw everyone for a loop once in a while. It won’t always go perfectly smoothly, but with a few adjustments, it can certainly be a little less bumpy.

Does your child have difficulty with transitions, large or small? What techniques have you used to help ease the shift? Let us know in the comments section…