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My five-year-old really struggles with moving from one activity task to another.

For example, we tell him we will only do a certain activity for x amount of time and then be done. It doesn't matter what the activity is or how bad he did or did not want to do it at the start of it. Once it's over, he will go into a tantrum, which usually appears forced, and take quite a bit to console because he was not done yet. It seems that he is trying to punish us for telling him the activity is over.

Granted, he is 5, so I know that this behavior is expected to some degree. However, are there any communication methods, systems, or advice that have worked to help decrease this type of behavior and help a child transition to different activities?

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    Please don't answer in comments. They have been moved to chat but if you can post them as answers that would be useful.
    – Rory Alsop
    Sep 2 at 11:34
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  • Give the child an advance warning about the upcoming transition (as mentioned in the answer by Roger Vadim), perhaps even several advance warnings. For example: "We will need to go home in 10 minutes", then: "Remember that we are leaving in two minutes, so please start picking up your toys". Children do not like when they have to suddenly stop doing something that they enjoy.

  • Speak in a calm voice and be polite. Say "please", etc. Harsh and impolite language are poor antecedents.

  • Praise the child when they transition without a tantrum or with a milder than usual tantrum. Praise should be specific, immediate and enthusiastic. You should be close to the child when you praise them, plus use touch. Praise even baby steps towards the desired goal, in your case, a transition without a tantrum.

  • If the desired behavior (see the above point) does not occur naturally at all, use games and simulations. Play a game with the child where they first pretend to do something and then they pretend to switch to something else. When they do the "pretend transition" without a tantrum, praise them. Repeat the game a few times per day for multiple days.

SEE ALSO:

REFERENCES:

Alan E. Kazdin and Carlo Rotella, The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

This book has a lot of advice on handling tantrums in many common situations, and provides much more details than is possible to give on a Q&A site, for example:

As you can probably tell, the “please” matters a great deal—both because it conveys a sense of choice to a child and because it serves to control your own tone. It’s harder to yell and speak harshly when you begin with “please.” Choice, a warm tone, and politeness all help to produce the results you want, as I’ll explain when I tell you about other sorts of antecedents.

(p. 33)

The program [simulation] would be repeated the next day, and the next; the child should have many opportunities within a fairly brief time. At the Parenting Center, we recommend at least a couple of such prompted trials per day, but there is no research to support any particular number and we have worked with parents whose schedules restricted them to just one per day. The general rule is: the more practice opportunities and trials in which behavior can occur and be reinforced, the better.

(p. 104)

After the simulations begin, there are likely to be unprompted occasions when the child does not have a tantrum or has a low-magnitude tantrum (a little whining). That is, the simulations also affect behavior in nonsimulated conditions. You should enthusiastically praise these unprompted mild or milder-than-usual tantrums outside of the Tantrum Game the first few times they occur. The effect of this is to greatly increase the likelihood of milder real-life tantrums. Yet the key to getting this behavior is several practice trials in simulated circumstances.

(p. 105)

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    +1 for advance warnings. I would add though, don't stress the point too much. "We've got to go in 15 minutes, alright?". "Ohhh :(". "I know, I know squish, but we've got to go because x, y, z.". Works everytime for me, with very little issue. Took a little getting used to but my son doesn't do more than a little moaning now.
    – Dom
    Sep 2 at 14:21
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    I also say "it'll be waiting for you when you come back next time", (if that's true, of course). Because that reassures my 3yo daughter that there will be an opportunity to do that activity again, and this isn't her last time. We say goodbye, and see you again later! That seems to work really well in her case.
    – stan
    Sep 2 at 15:23
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    @stan I have negative feelings towards this kind of response. As a small child It seemed uncaring, flippant, obvious and irrelevant. It evoked the same feelings as when an adult said "because I said so". I would go for what Dom said instead, you can very easily go bad with tone on this one, it's very hard to accidentally be callous with empathetic responses.
    – Krupip
    Sep 3 at 3:55
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    I've got my kids trained to repeat the time warnings... ME: "We're going in 5 minutes" THEM: "Ok, 5 minutes." Really helps cut back on any potential misunderstandings.
    – Lindsey D
    Sep 3 at 18:24
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One approach is to tell that you are going to change the activity a bit in advance, letting the child to digest the idea. E.g., you say that you finish in five minutes, or that you read just the one last story, the last round of a game, etc.

It also helps to invoke some rituals/habitual actions - e.g., suggest the child to say "goodbye" to their friends when inviting them to part.

A more forceful method is warn about the consequences of disobedience (a mild punishment, such as denying a treat), say that you count to three, and slowly count.

Finally, gently forcing them to do what needs to be done, if nothing helps.

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In addition to the great accepted answer, you can in addition try to 'make closure' with the activity. This depends strongly on the activity, but finding some way with the kid to complete the activity. Like if it is a building block structure, then take together a photo with you mobile phone, so it gets in some way preserved; of course it is difficult to find such things that work.

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Try asking them about the activity they just did - what they did, what they liked about it, what they could try next time. Give them a chance to process and "chew their food", so to speak.

My 3-year-old would always throw a tantrum when we stopped watching TV. It didn't matter how much or little they had watched, or what we'd agreed to beforehand, or how much warning I gave them. But if I asked them things like "What episodes did you watch? What did this character do? Did you notice the submarine?", they calmed down and were happy to move on.

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  • That is probably an instance of the technique of distraction.
    – Pablo H
    Sep 2 at 13:25
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This goes a bit against common advice but it's something I have had good success with: Be honest. Enforce only things that need to be enforced. That is, if it's really not necessary to leave now let them play another five minutes. Don't insist just in order to assert authority, or just in order to establish and follow rules.

This latches on to another answer here which encourages parents to be polite and say "please" because it gives the children the feeling that they have a choice. This strategy will be more effective if they indeed do have a choice! They can decide to please you and stop, or ask for some extension, and if there are no compulsive reasons to leave right now, there may be another five minutes, and we'll have dinner a a little later. Perhaps that means less reading time in bed though! This is a bit of a give and take: If the parent senses that the child has a particularly good time they'll be more willing to readjust their plans; if they feel the child is only whining, not so much. This way honesty is rewarded and encouraged in both partners here.

The reason this goes against common wisdom is that children allegedly won't be able to understand that one time their pleading is successful, and another time not — that they cannot recognize real urgency. They would throw a tantrum every time, hoping to convince the parents this time as well, and therefore we should not give in to pleading once we made the request to stop the activity. Be consequent! is the mantra.

But I think even small children have a good sense whether one is honest with them or not, and can tell when you really mean it. Reportedly dogs are able to tell whether their owner is only pretending or not: When the owner is only going through the motions of putting on a coat etc. in order to fool the dog the dog stays put in their place; if and when, instead, the owner goes out for real the dog will be happily waiting at the door.

My son certainly could do what the dog could. He could sense a true air of urgency and usually went along. He also knew that I'd accommodate him if it were possible.

Children can tell whether something really needs to be done. Knowing that ending this activity is not arbitrary but necessary will make it easier for them to go along with it.

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Tantrums are often a means of trying to regain control of a situation. Your child was doing something they enjoyed and then the decision to continue was taken away from them. When my son (2.5) first started throwing tantrums, he would try and arrange the situation back to exactly how things were before he got upset, e.g. trying to pull back on his clothes if he didn't want a bath. This wasn't because he wanted to be dressed. It is because he felt in control when his clothes were on and he didn't understand why that feeling of control was removed.

If you are able, allowing the child to by in control of ending the activity will give them that sense of self-determination and avoid the tantrum. For example, my son will throw a tantrum if he is watching a program on TV and we turn it off without warning to take him up for his bath. If instead we give him the remote and tell him at the start of the program that once it is finished, he needs to turn it off himself, he will do so without a fuss. From his perspective, he has chosen to end the activity and so has not relinquished any control.

Another option is to turn ending the activity into an activity itself. We have a "tidy up" song that we sing when putting away my son's toys. This is an activity with a defined end - it stops when there is no more tidying to do - but it also ends the previous activity. Again, as with the above suggestion, this is an activity the child is in control of - they end it when the last toy is put away - and they get a sense of accomplishment from doing it.

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    I have not voted on this post, as I am not an expert on this subject (I am not a parent). But it looks like a good post. It actually addresses the question, is well-written, draws from the author’s experience and explains its reasoning. Yet someone else has downvoted it. Why? Sep 3 at 14:31
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In our household, the letting the kids know in advance approach works fairly well. When they're very engaged in something, and the deadline is in 10 minutes, I usually give several 'heads-up' reminders, for example, at the 10m, 5m, 2m and 1m marks.

The other thing that can really help, is setting a countdown timer on your phone. The audible alarm and visual countdown helps deflect the confrontation away from being between you and your kid, to something that is coming from an external device. It can also be fun to count-down the numbers with them, similar to watching rocket launch videos. When the countdown is complete, the rocket leaves.

When our kids are focused on an activity, we generally let them continue their play or investigations unless we have to be somewhere on schedule. You'll be surprised at the improvement in the quality of their artwork or skills if you let them draw or paint 10 or 15 minutes more.

Most parents these days will struggle to keep their kids engaged and focused, it's great that your kid can show sustained interest in something.

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With both my kids (now 4 and 6), it seems to help to express this "rule" using the same exact phrasing every time. As soon as I start to say it, they know exactly what I'm going to say. I think being a set phrase makes it psychologically harder to argue with. My phrasing is,

When we do something fun, and it's time to be all done, we're all done without any fussing.

Contrary to other answers, I've found limited success in letting them know in advance about the change in activity. Mostly this seems to give them a chance to prepare their resistance by carefully timing the beginning of a new phase of the activity that they simply must finish, like the next drawing or the next LEGO construction. If we do give them notice, it again helps to be repetitive. We always tell them they have six minutes. Why six? I don't know. My wife started it.

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    Part of the reason to give them advanced notice, beyond simply making the "now" better, is to help them learn how to adjust. If it's "We need to stop playing Legos now", then they're not as able to learn coping mechanisms; if they always have a few minutes, eventually they will learn. Of course, you have to adjust when they do things like start something early - when that time is done, they stop no matter what. That still happens at 8 and 10 :)
    – Joe
    Sep 2 at 18:03
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Children must be taught to obey. You and I were ... more or less successfully. If we hadn't been taught that there are authorities who set the rules and timetables, we could not be good students, employees, etc.

A child who throws tantrums is, as you said, punishing the parent for curtailing whatever it is he or she wants -- whether it's ending the time at the park or refusing to buy candy or tucking him or her into bed.

It is good for the child to learn that the loving parent makes the rules and those rules stand. What punishment you find effective is something of a personal call. But it needs to be something the child takes seriously but also something that does not involve long-term disapproval by or separation from the parent. We are trying to build harmony with the child under our direction, not push him away.

This is a regard in which a classic corporal punishment is far better than alternative "locked in the closet" kinds of punishments.

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    This is wrong, abusive and dangerous. I don't have enough space in a comment to say how many ways this is wrong, but let's just say the suggestion in your final sentence is actually illegal in a number of countries. The child is not punishing you, they are genuinely aggrieved at having something they value taken away apparently arbitrarily. If you don't take the time to see it from the child's point of view, you are failing to communicate with them, and all you're teaching them is "I can hit you and hurt you because I'm bigger than you". You're raising a bully by being a bully.
    – Graham
    Sep 1 at 20:45
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    "Children must be taught to obey." No. Children should learn that following guidelines is beneficial, for them or the common good of the family, in the short or perhaps the long term. Not obey the rules per se. Not blindingly follow authority. Because authority can order you to hurt, ransack, kill other people...
    – Pablo H
    Sep 2 at 13:35

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