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Trouble with transitions - supporting children with change

Trouble with transitions - supporting children wit
Photo: Trouble with transitions - supporting children with change
Transitions can be challenging for all children – but some struggle more than others when it comes to change. A child's temperament, resiliency and prior experience contribute to how they cope with transitions, but diagnoses like autism, sensory processing disorder, anxiety or ADHD can further exacerbate the experience.

A transition can involve significant change, such as moving to a new country or coping with divorce, or as simple as arriving at school in the morning or being told to stop playing to get ready for dinner.

So, what does trouble with transitions look like? Lysn psychologist Noosha Anzab says identifying when a child struggles with a transition can present in many ways.

"We know a child is having trouble in transitioning when they start negotiating, resisting, distracting or avoiding.
"There is usually a great deal of disappointment for the child when facing transitions, and that can become transparent through their behaviour.

"We see children demonstrate anxious behaviour, become sensitive and appear to be stressed."

Research shows that before age five, the regulatory part of the brain is underdeveloped, explains Mrs Anzab, so young children rely heavily on parents and caregivers to provide consistency, repetition and routine.

"To help kids manage transitions, it's helpful to use visual cues and reward their positive transitions.

"Also giving clues along the way with regard to the transition helps children understand what's to come."

The evening routine presents a good example of triggering transitions, which can be anticipated to help the child transition more smoothly.

"Let the child know that after a brief time of play, we will eat dinner, then have a bath, read a story and go to sleep so we can wake up and go to school the next day.

"This helps them know what's to come and allows the child to transition instead of suddenly changing an activity."

While transitions can be challenging for all children, particularly those under five, those with emotional and developmental issues like ADHD, anxiety, autism and sensory processing issues find transitions particularly difficult.

Children diagnosed with autism have less cognitive flexibility and fewer or less active neurons in their brain's reward centres, explains Ms Anzab. 

"When something is rewarding, they tend to become hyper-focused on it.

"They also have a harder time regulating emotions, so during transition, their reactions are much more significant."

Children with sensory processing issues are also more sensitive to transitions. If a child experiences emotional outbursts that seem out of proportion to the situation, sensory processing issues may be at work.

"They may feel overstimulated and incredibly underprepared."

Children with anxiety will also struggle more with transitions as they fear the unknown.

"Anxious children tend to find transitions more difficult as they are faced with fear.

"Often their attempts at balancing their feelings and their bodies are disrupted."

Fortunately, we can make transitions smoother for children who struggle with change.

"Planning ahead, having everything in order and ready for the next transition, and using auditory queues like a clean-up song can help a child feel at ease recognising the signal for a transition.

"We can also use visual cues like sticking posters, signs and photos up to guide a schedule or routine."

Communicating with primary carers and educators is crucial to help children with transitions.

"Whether you are communicating with your partner, babysitter, school or childcare - the back and forth can be helpful."

Psychologist Sarah-Jayne Duryea says difficulty with transitions is age-dependent and can be tricky to identify as it doesn't manifest in the same was as with adults. 

"You might see a regression in younger children's behaviour or development, bedwetting or acting out, whereas, in an older child, you may see displays of anger or being shut down."

It's also important to build a secure attachment with children to help them navigate transitions and life changes, adds Ms Duryea.

"Lots of one-to-one time, activities at their level, pace and connection and warmth and affection.

"It's about being their safe place and keeping communication open, so if they are struggling, they feel that you're a safe person to offload with."

"Throw out the time outs, sticker charts and general disconnection from our young people when they are having a difficult time.

"Teach them the behaviour you want before choosing a punishment that involves shutting them away in their room or taking things away from them.

"It's the best way to build resilient, securely attached adults," says Ms Duryea.

Andi Lew, author and mother of one, moved with her young son from Melbourne to Sydney during lockdown, which was a big transition they navigated together.

Ms Lew says engaging her son in the practicalities of the move, including making lists of what to take and what he'll miss about home, and making it an adventure helped ease the transition.

"You'll have time to pack and plan whilst they're busy writing. It helps you remember what needs to be done and acknowledges their needs are valid. Being involved means they're a part of the exciting transition."

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.