with Pediatric Psychologist Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Reasons Transitions Are Hard
- Common Transition Times Kids (And Parents) Struggle With
- Ways To Ease Transitions So They Go More Smoothly
Have you ever been on your way out the door, and then one of your kids flopped on the ground like a fish, because they wanted a different color backpack? Or put a well-fed and properly hydrated preschooler to bed only to have them come out of their room 5 minutes later and ask for a drink? These moments can be frustrating, but a lot of times, it’s the moving from one thing to another that actually drives the child’s behaviour.
Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart is a pediatric psychologist specializing in helping people with medical issues find alternative treatments. She is going to help us unpack why change can be so hard to deal with and how we can make it easier.
Reasons Transitions Are So Difficult
“Transitions are often not associated with anything positive,” Dr. Lockhart said. “Usually when we think of transitions we think of terror and horror.” She used the pandemic as an example.
Her children’s school shut down the week after spring break. She told her kids, “Okay, we get an extra week of spring break!” But then school supplies and graded work was sent home. We’d have a normal summer though, right? And the daily changes took on an almost apocalyptic feel.
Change constantly happens in our life, and when it’s a positive transition, we don’t pay as much attention to it. I used to have stress dreams about missing class when I went back to school every year. But once I understood it, I was able to bridge that gap.
“If I don’t know what to expect, my brain is going to tell me what are the worst-case scenarios, or what are the scenarios that could possibly happen?” Dr. Lockhart explained. When we don’t know something, we try to create a reason for it in our heads. But we’re creating this script from a place of anxiety, so we don’t automatically go to positive or even benign explanations.
Something I do to combat these worst-case scenarios that creep into my head is trying to come up with 5 other possible scenarios. If I’m worried about going to a new mom’s group for the first time, and I’m worried no one will like me, what are 5 other possible outcomes of going?
Maybe I’ll meet a new friend. If I don’t meet a new friend on my first time there, maybe I’ll have an enjoyable conversation with someone. Maybe there are other moms who are going through the same things as me right now.
Dr. Lockhart likes to challenge clients to come up with a worst-case scenario, a best-case scenario, and a realistic scenario. “That way you’re really balancing it out. Your brain isn’t so focused on the catastrophe. But it’s also rehearsing all the other. scripts and narratives that could play out. So, in a sense, you’re rehearsing.”
This is important, because in psychology one of the best ways to deal with fear is to create imagined exposures to the scary thing. It helps you create a script for your future self, so you know what to do when you’re in the situation.
This is a strategy that can be really helpful right now as you’re trying to navigate post-pandemic reopenings with unvaccinated children. If you’re contemplating trying to do something, you can think through the scenarios and have a plan in place.
Common Transition Times Kids (And Parents) Struggle With
When we moved houses, my six-year-old had a meltdown in the car about his water bottle. He needed his water bottle because he has to ask for water at daycare and can’t have water whenever he wants, so he *needed* his water bottle.
Having his water bottle allowed him to control how much water he drank at daycare. It was something he could control when there were other things going on in his life he had no control over. But this was easy to understand, because we knew he was going through big changes.
We suspect my four-year-old may have ADHD. Transitions are very hard for him especially when he’s tired. He doesn’t haven’t a lot of flexibility, so I have to be very patient. Moving a child whose brain gets “sticky” on something to a new activity or task can be difficult.
“One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents is when our child is engrossed in something they love, and then we’re like, ‘Let’s go!’” Dr. Lockhart said. And then we wonder why they throw a fit, but as an adult would you like it if someone demanded your attention while you were doing something you loved?
“Join them first,” she recommended. “You join them in the activity they love and be interested in it. And then you tell them what’s going to happen.” Connecting with them during that transition can help them cope with it.
Visual timers and prompts can also really help. For my middle child who sometimes has “sticky brain,” giving one task at a time helps him process, and sometimes I have to take his hand and guide him through the process.
Sometimes you can just ask your child what’s hard about the transition. “You can listen out for the themes, and try to find out what the problem is,” Dr. Lockhart said. Once you know the problem, you can work together with the kid to find a solution. This will help to ease the transition but also helps them build problem-solving skills.
Ways To Ease Transitions So They Go More Smoothly
When a transition has a timeline attached, it’s easy for a parent to lose their patience. At the moment we’re about to walk out the door for daycare drop-off, my son decides the seam of his sock really bothers him, and he can’t wear it. For now, we’ve problem-solved by wearing sandals so he doesn’t need socks. But this is a moment when I feel like I need support to make it through the transition. We’re rushing out the door and I’m too frazzled to deal with a meltdown.
“In the moment, we have to not take the behaviour personally. The behaviour is not about you. It’s about them,” Dr. Lockhart explained. The behaviour is to get some need met on the child’s side, but it can be easy to feel like we’re being disrespected.
“Educate yourself,” Dr. Lockhart said. It’s good to have an idea of where they are developmentally. Sometimes parents think because their child is smart they should be able to process things they may not be. And even if developmentally our child should be at a certain place, we have to keep in mind their executive functioning might not be as developed because of ADHD or autism.
“Kids don’t see time the way we do,” she explained. Ten minutes doesn’t matter when you just want to watch Paw Patrol.
How we perceive the situation makes a big difference in how we respond to it. If I interpret the behaviour as, “Why aren’t you following the rules?” I’m going to go into the conversation very differently than if I can just be curious about it. “Guys, why aren’t we staying in bed?”
Some things you can do to make transitions easier is to practice them while you’re not in a time crunch. The time crunch is a trigger for parents and a lot of kids too. By discussing and walking through what-if scenarios with your kids, you are helping them learn how to practice situations. Your kids will be learning a lifelong skill since we talked about doing this same thing for ourselves too.
Teaching your kids the skill of transitioning and problem-solving are huge too. My sons are bouncing from room to room upstairs after bedtime, so I plan to discuss it with them. My older two are both good problem-solvers, so I expect they’ll probably offer me some solutions when I ask. If your kid isn’t ready for that yet, you can offer them solutions and seek their input until they’re ready to give their own ideas.
If you feel like you’re still struggling to stay calm in these situations, or you’re just overwhelmed, we can help find a licensed professional to support you through this at the wellness center.
Dr. Lockhart is a West Indian woman, a wife of 22 years, a mom of 2 kids and has over 15 years of experience as a pediatric psychologist. She specializes in working with clients who present with medical diagnoses and are seeking alternative solutions. She also serves as a parent coach for parents who have kids with behavioral and emotional regulation concerns, those diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, as well as kids who are highly sensitive.
Dr. Lockhart has spoken nationally at schools, conferences and has been interviewed and quoted in the New York Times, New York Post, Pure Wow, MSN, Fatherly, Essence, HuffPost, San Antonio Magazine, Veronica Beard, Parents Magazine, and Therapy for Black Girls podcast.