Easing the worry around transitions

Author: Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

All kids go through many ordinary and expected transitions in one day, from the moment of waking with going from bed to bathroom to breakfast table to bedroom for dressing, from the house to the car, from the car to inside the school and so it goes on – you get the picture! And this is just the small stuff – many young kids, due to the nature of being children to parents in their most productive family and work years, also face possibilities of adjusting to a growing family and dealing with having a new baby come along, manage house renovations and disruption, house relocation, parents changing jobs, even parents separating, parents re-partnering, pets coming and going; and at the most significant, loss of a loved one.

Separations can be hard!! And they mostly should be. From a survival perspective, toddlers and children are instinctively geared (via neuronal pathways) to understand where their caregivers are at all times … in the advent of something dangerous coming along so that they can quickly alert the parents and be gathered up and protected or hidden from danger’s path. Unfamiliarity is approached with caution; which again makes sense for ‘survival’ – if we as a species did not pay more attention and be more cautious or on edge when in an unfamiliar situation with unknown places or people (and potential threats) then we probably would not have survived to the modern era… !

So some resistance in separating from safe caregivers to unfamiliar people or an unfamiliar or less secure places, is a healthy response, and should be expected. When first transitioning, children will mostly read from the cues of their parent what they should interpret as a situation to be cautious of. This works well providing we don’t send mixed signals. If we seem anxious at school drop off, even if the anxiety is due to being late for work or an important work meeting later that day, our kids will ‘read’ this anxiety and associate it with the drop off and therefore to school, or even to the caregiver being handed over to.

So managing our own emotions is a big step in helping children manage transitions – if we are anxious, short tempered, speak with a hostile tone or are dismissive of their own concerns or are demanding of them when emotions are flying high, then we are setting our kids up for failure (sorry, truth hurts sometimes!). So taking a moment to take a deep breath inwards to send a signal to your own brain that there is no imminent threat, using some positive self-statements (“I got this!”) and remembering to focus on the task at hand and not getting caught up in what comes later (“One thing at a time, school first, work next”) can help you and your child enormously.

Leaving extra time to get to school a little earlier on busy and stressful days can help transitions go smoothly. It’s usually the day you’re in a hurry that your child needs you to linger a little longer to help them settle, and the reason why is usually due to them needing reassurance that your stress is not due to them, or your anxiety about where you are leaving them.

For the most part though, kids as young as 2 or 3 can manage everyday transitions with fairly simple processes. Ensuring advance warning is provided and the child has been through the transition before and knows what to expect or has had it explained clearly and even a ‘dummy walk through’ (advance practice) then most kids will be okay most of the time. Sticking to a certain routine before big changes like a school morning can also help children feel more safe and secure in what is happening.

However on some days, or for the tougher transitions, our kids need some extra support.

So what tricks do you have up your sleeve to make the inevitable task of separating or transitioning from task to task and place to place easier?

Extra cuddles on drop off? The promise of extra time in the afternoon on pick up? Staying half an hour to assist in the transition? Or perhaps allowing your child to take their favourite snuggle toy?

Security objects such as blankies and teddies can assist transitions as they are an important part of the emotional support system every child needs in their early years. ‘Security blankets’ help children move away from complete dependence on caregivers for comfort. They are reached for when a child is tired, as it helps them get to sleep. When a child is separated from you, the blankie will reassure them. When frightened or upset, it will provide comfort. When in a strange place, it will help to feel at home. These special comforts are called ‘transitional objects’, because they help children make the emotional transition from dependence to independence (briefly at least). They work, in part, because they feel good: they’re nice to touch. They’re also effective because of their familiarity. It makes the child feel that everything is going to be okay (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009).

Despite myths to the contrary, transitional objects are not a sign of weakness or insecurity. According to developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, ‘the object allows for and invites emotional well-being, and without such an object, true feelings may be concealed, suppressed, or dismissed as the infant/child has no other means by which to cope with, comprehend, and contend with the world (with their caregiver absent)’. In fact, a transitional object can be so helpful that it is often a good idea to introduce them early and then with new transitions encourage use of the object (like at bedtime or school time).

Apart from the absolute favourite cuddle toy, you can help introduce an additional transitional object (TO) for your child to help them move through emotionally challenging situations. The important feature is the meaning of the object, or the meaning attributed to the object, not about the value of the object itself. For us adults we often refer to this as sentimental value versus monetory value.

The object needs to be a tangible, touchable reminder (an object of permanence). It’s a symbol that something of comfort is absent (mum or dad, home, or a friend) and the comfort toy or symbol of connection is there as a link. This is especially important for young children who have not yet had the brain development to understand that things continue to exist even when they are absent (under around 18 months of age).

The important step in establishing a new TO is to collaborate with your child; even nonverbal children and young kids are good at indicating preferences if presented with two or three options. Kids know what they like and will reach for, point, or at least look toward their preferred option; or settle on one when left with them all for a while. With my own son he was absolutely hooked on grabbing for my hair at times of settling and I worked on replacing this by trying out a range of soft teddies and blankets until he finally settled on one.

When children are a little older (even from 3 years of age) more discrete objects can be introduced, and you can start to introduce temporary ones, specific to the situation, event or person leaving/ going to.

For instance, a favourite ribbon or scarf of mum’s tied in your child’s hair, on their school bag or worn as a belt; a pet rock made together or a rock with a word or message (let the rock ‘sleep’ next to the bed or under the pillow first); dad’s beanie on a teddy; an amulet made from air dry clay or fimo; beads from a favourite baby teether or mum’s broken necklace to tie it inside your child’s pocket so they can feel it any time, or a fabric heart full of love for their pocket made from a sentimental material (favourite baby onesie; tshirt of mum or dad’s). It can be a good idea at the end of the day to ‘charge up’ the object with love and connection again in a way that makes sense to your child – either having the object sleep under mum/dad’s pillow, have the parent kiss the object goodnight or in the morning a kiss of love goodbye ‘until the afternoon’.

Access to transitional objects is often restricted by caregivers, only being allowed during certain times or in certain places (ie sleep time, home time, to be kept in the bag at school). However, Colleen Goddard a Child Development Specialist and Early Educator, explains that if the object thought to make a child stronger and more resilient in the face of emotional challenges is removed or denied access to, it can actually create more anxiety.

So when going to school, chat to your Go Kindy teacher about any limitations about bringing or accessing comfort items during the day, especially objects that might be sought after by other children and be at risk of breakage, because none of us want to deal with a damaged comfort object! Ask the teacher how the object can be accessed in a special ‘hidey’ spot; or for children who can achieve comfort from sight alone or who can ask for or point at an object when needed, a special shelf or display box in the main room would be ideal.

Stay tuned next time for tips on supporting children through a situation of loss and grief.

From Little Things, Big Things Grow…


American Academy of Pediatrics, ‘Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5’, from healthychildren.org, dated August 1, 2009.

Colleen Goddard, Psychology Today; ‘More Than Just Teddy Bear: The significance of transitional objects in an early childhood classroom’, dated July 15, 2014.

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