This isn't a question about what general incentives or methods of discipline work best.

I'm looking for techniques specific to transitions, like when it's time to stop playing and go somewhere, etc. The reason these seem like a bit of a special case is that the tantrum is reflecting a strong status quo bias - you can't really just gently reflect back the toddlers emotions and then ignore the tantrum, or give time, because that's exactly what they're tantruming to get.

3 Answers 3


The key for us is using a timer. We have a 'strong willed' almost-three year old, and he hates transitions (unless there's a big reward or somesuch). Big tantrums.

However, we began around 2 using a timer. "Okay, son, we're about done with X activity. I'm setting a timer for 2 minutes; when it goes off, we're going to go [eat|sleep|do something boring]." Then, when the timer goes off, we show him the timer and point out the audible sound, and tell him it's now time to do [other thing] or stop doing [current fun thing]. He may still object, but he typically makes only a brief complaint at this point, and then does the next thing, even if it's something he doesn't care for, like bedtime.

It isn't a panacea, but it works most of the time, to the point that we no longer get tantrums much of the time when we do not use the timer - instead, we get "Timer please".

We also try to offer some element of choice in [next thing], if it's available; for example, if the transition is to go to eat dinner, the choice might be the chair or the plate/bowl type. In addition to that working in general for getting kids involved in things, it specifically is useful in transitions as it moves their focus from the previous activity to the new one in a positive/empowering way; it's sort of like saying to an adult reading a book, "Hi, now that you're done with that chapter, would you like to eat at Subway or Wendy's?" You're presuming the shift and offering them a choice after the shift, which takes away much of the argument against the shift.

  • We have too been using a timer (the one in our "smart"-phones since we didn't have anything else around the first time). The response has been very good. Our daughter (almost 3) is OK even when going home from the park, which used to be a major problem. Now, she asks for it, even when we never used the timer before. And even if she says "one more round" we often add one minute and we are done with it. Also, going over the routine or the next steps after the timer greatly helps: eg. "What are we doing now? Where are we going? What's there?"
    – mgm
    Mar 30, 2014 at 22:17
  • I up voted too-this is the best option. My boy had sensory integration issues when he was young and transitions were a nightmare. We used a visual timer so he could clearly see how much time was left. I would add that practicing transitions between enjoyable activities is helpful- for instance: "let's play with trucks for 10 min and then we'll read books for 10 min" helps them learn not to dread transitions and lets them get used the timer in a no-pressure scenario.
    – Jax
    Apr 2, 2014 at 12:04

We try to approach our transitions as intentionally and with as much advanced planning as possible, because they are tough, as you mentioned. We start with the following strategy:

  1. Make our child aware there will be an upcoming transition to do something else (eat, sleep, get in the car, etc), and explain why the next thing is important and what will be going on there

  2. We ask our child to choose to do a "last thing" -- one more puzzle, one more slide, one more game, etc, so they feel like they have "completed" the thing they are currently doing

  3. As we are leaving we ask our child to say goodbye and see you later (if appropriate) to the friend, playground, toy, etc, as a parting ritual. This also involves hugs, kisses, etc, if friends or family.

Our overall strategy is to be very explicit and help make the transition with understanding and practices/activities that help with separation and expectations.


For us with an almost-four-year-old, giving a time limit helps. "We can do this for two more minutes, then we're going to do x. Okay?" And get them to acknowledge that, if possible. Then, a "one minute" warning. Then, we ask "Okay, time to do x. What do we have to do to do that?" And encourage them to explain the steps )"Put our shoes on?")

Mostly, we just try to be patient but firm. Transitions are tough, and they're learning. There aren't any global solutions, because each child is so different. The best techniques (for us) involve making the transition as least surprising as possible.

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