I’d always heard that it’s best to prepare young children for any changes or transitions coming up: a birthday party, a doctor’s visit, even a trip to the grocery store. That’s why I was so surprised when my daughter Lisa, then age four, said to me: “Mom, just don’t tell me when something is going to happen. It’s better if I don’t know.” When I thought about it, though, it made sense. Lisa tended to get overly excited about good things (she often threw up before going to a birthday party) and overly upset about more negative or potentially stressful experiences. It seemed like the more warning and preparation she had, the more time she had to get worked up.
So the next time Lisa had a dentist’s appointment, I tried it her way. We got in the car to “go to the mall” and once inside, I walked her up to the dentist’s waiting room. Yes, she had a few moments of being stressed (she’s not a fan of dentistry), but she was right — it was much better than two or three days of anxious anticipation.
However, Lisa’s approach doesn’t work for all children. Celia Osenton, a Certified Canadian Family Educator in Calgary, says, “temperament certainly does affect a child’s ability to deal with surprises or changes — and different temperaments require different approaches.”
For some children, minimal warnings work well; others need more time to prepare themselves. It’s often a process of trial and error to find the level of anticipation that suits your child’s personality.
Leaving a fun activity, for example, may go much more smoothly for some children if they have some warning. Tania Archbold remembers taking her son Jackson to the playground when he was three (he’s seven now). “If I told him it was time to leave, he’d try to run off or climb to the top of the play structure where I couldn’t get him, and then I’d usually end up carrying him back to the house, with him screaming the whole way like I was trying to kill him.” It made all the difference, she says, when she began giving him countdowns: “If I told him 15 minutes before we go, 10 minutes, five minutes, and we’re going in one minute, he still didn’t exactly skip happily all the way home, but it wasn’t such a big production.”
With Lisa, however, it was the opposite. If I gave her 10 minutes’ warning, she’d use those 10 minutes to cry, complain and get upset. By the time we actually left, she’d be worked up to a tantrum. If I just said, “Oh, it’s time to go now,” and picked her up or took her hand and started walking home, she’d generally just fall into step and off we’d go.
When Jackson doesn’t have the opportunity to anticipate change and mentally prepare himself, he can find it quite stressful. “I take the bus to work most days, and my husband, Tyler, drives Jackson and his little brother to daycare on his way to work,” Archbold explains. “But one morning, I missed the bus, so I got in the van with the rest of the family so Tyler could drive me to work after dropping off the boys.” No big deal? It was to Jackson, who soon dissolved in tears. “He was really upset, and kept saying ‘But you’re not supposed to be in the car, you’re supposed to take the bus,’” his mother says.
The next time that happened, Archbold took a few moments as soon as she realized she’d missed the bus to tell Jackson about the change in plans. “He’s OK if you let him know,” she says. “I couldn’t give him a lot of warning, but even that little bit helped.”
For something more potentially stressful — like a dentist appointment — Jackson needs a full week to prepare. “And he wants to know exactly what’s going to happen,” she says, “so we have to go through it step by step.”
That’s not unusual, says Osenton. “Lots of explanation and repetition is often needed for preschool children.” She adds that it’s important parents monitor their own feelings about the event because kids can easily pick up their emotions. If you hate going to the dentist, for example, really work at discussing your child’s appointment in a calm and positive tone of voice. “Sometimes children’s concerns about changes or planned events are not based on their own fears, but on the feelings they are picking up from the adults.”
Even if your child doesn’t get excited to the point of throwing up, like Lisa, Osenton advises not giving too much notice for positive events. “Most children don’t need as much time to prepare to cope with these events, and it can be a challenge for the parents to cope with the child’s excitement for too long,” she says. Also remember that preschoolers have no sense of time, so being told that you’re going to a water park in two weeks doesn’t mean much. They just hear, “Going to a water park! Woo hoo!”
Whether your child needs lots of warning or not too much, finding the right strategy will go a long way to making transitions easier. “You want to work with your child’s temperament, rather than against it,” says Osenton.