Dear Dr. Debbie,
I have a lot of trouble leaving anywhere with my 3-year-old. She acts like the world is coming to an end when it’s time to go from a play date, the park, the library, you name it. Some of her tears I can chalk up to being tired or hungry, but in general, her unnecessary drama makes me hesitate to take her anywhere.
Are there tips to help her to find closure to a fun time so we can move on to something else?
Let’s Avoid a Scene
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This age is known to have trouble with transitions, which are defined as the moments between two activities. And being of the age when her mind is more active than at any other age, she always has to be engaged in an activity. Early childhood teachers, who must transition whole groups of children at once, are very familiar with the chaos that can ensue if this critical moment is not well-handled. Letting go and moving on are indeed challenging when the 3-year-old mind is hyper-focused on the moment of now.
Let’s use the analogy of an astronaut spacewalking outside of her space station to explain how a preschooler can be so totally immersed in one activity that she acts as if you are asking her to let go of life itself when it is time to end it. Your astronaut is in her spacesuit, tethered to the outside of her ship, focused on working with her tools with heavy gloves on her hands. She hears the sound of her own breathing inside her helmet. She maintains her concentration on the work of her hands with an underlying awareness of the blackness and vastness of infinity in every direction.
Along comes the supply ship which needs her help to dock. Before unhooking her tether, the cautious astronaut takes a second tether, checks that it is securely fastened to her belt, and hooks it onto the supply ship. Not until she checks that the new bond is secure, can she unhook the first tether and turn her attentions to the supply ship. To lose her connection would be ushering death. Clinging tightly to one ship or another is what’s keeping her alive. In this moment of now.
You can smooth out your daughter’s transitions by helping her to connect to whatever ship is coming next, metaphorically speaking, before letting go of the ship she is attached to. Think of ways to engage one or more of her senses – sight, sound, touch, even smell and taste. You could use a visual hook – showing her that you’ve gathered up her sweater and shoes or pointing out an interesting illustration in a book you’re checking out to take home. For an audible transition, you might start talking about lunch, forcing a conversational connection by asking her preference between tuna fish on whole wheat or provolone cheese on rye. Or comment enticingly about the natural sounds of animals, or machines, or the weather to move her mind toward going outside. Singing your way between activities or locations is another auditory transition technique. My favorite for moving a class of preschoolers inside when outdoor time was cut short by rain is “The Ants Go Marching One by One.”
A tactile connection can be made if you ask her to carry something from the place you’re leaving to the place you’re going – it only has to hold her attention until she’s buckled in her car seat. It might be something from the place you’re leaving — a blank withdrawal slip is a clever way to take a young child out of a bank, or the place you’re going — she can be in charge of returning one of your library books. Use her sense of smell to shift her attention toward a beckoning bubble bath or the aromas of her awaiting food. Even an imagined smell can work her olfactory memory to encourage forward motion on an errand to the bakery counter or flower shop. Not as ever-hungry as a 2-year-old, your 3-year-old’s appetite will work in your favor if the timing is right for her to be interested in eating. Get her mind on food with some pre-meal nibbling. The chore of noodle-testing is useful for determining whether pasta is sufficiently cooked, but it is also a nice way for a child’s taste buds to bring her awareness to the coming meal.
We must accept that at her age she can only do one thing at once until her attention is pulled to something else. If you ease the pulling away by helping her become attached to what you’re pulling her toward, the letting go will be smoother.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com