We've all been there. A wonderful play at the park or a visit with a family member - or even a quick trip to the shops - ends in a screaming tantrum as our little one objects to our requests to leave. We end up heaving the child over our shoulder while they wail, carrying him or her to the car, and then fighting to get the seatbelt on. Then we sit in the car and drive while our little one writhes and squirms and squeals, expressing all that anger and disapproval because we had to leave.
There has to be a better way! Fortunately there are a few helpful strategies you can try. Here are three suggestions:
Communicate transitions clearly
Many parents think that by telling their child that you will be leaving in an hour, he should not be surprised or upset when it is time to go. Unfortunately he really does not understand what an hour is. You may have had the experience where you tell your child "We'll do that fun thing in five minutes" , and so he starts counting. One, two, three, four, five. You explain, "No, that's five seconds. I said five minutes. That means you count to 60, and you do it five times." Your child then looks at you with bewilderment. "Whoa. Sixty. That's too big."
What your son needs is a clearer, more meaningful type of communication around transitions. Perhaps you can give more reminders.
"Son, in ten more minutes it will be time to leave."
Then a few minutes later you can say, "Remember I said ten minutes to go? Well now it's five minutes to go."
Then shortly after, you might say, "Buddy, there is only two minutes to go. Is there anything you'd like to do before we leave?"
And finally, "Ok... that's time up. Time to go. Would you like to walk to the car or would you like me to carry you?" (That choice should not be a threat, but an invitation.)
One family I know uses songs to represent transitions. The children know that when they hear a certain song, it's time for everyone to get together in the lounge room. Perhaps you can tell your son that when you start singing his favourite song, it's time for hugs and a carry to the car.
Provide in fantasy what they can't have in reality
A little empathy can go a long way. It might be helpful in some situations to coach your child through their emotions before they get too big.
When you notice your little one getting upset, it might be normal to say, "Cut that out. I told you it's time to get in the car. Now! Let's go or I'll have to carry you there." But there is another way.
By showing empathy you might respond by saying, "Oh. You don't want to leave. You wish you could stay. I really understand. Staying would be so much better than going."
Next comes the fantasy. With good-natured fun, you add, "In fact, you wish you could stay the whole day. You wish you could live here! Wouldn't that be great if we lived at the shops and we could..." and then you use your imagination to have fun with the idea.
This does two things. First, it shows you get how your child feels. Second, it offers something of a distraction and which helps keep emotions in check. Once you feel your little one is calm, you say, "I wish we could stay all day too. That would be great. But what did we talk about before we came here?" Remind your child that you prepped him or her about leaving, remind your child that you'll be back, and ask, "So what do we need to do now?"
Some people think this is nasty. But even adults appreciate it when we show we understand. Here's an example. "Wow, look at that car. I want to buy it!" You look at your husband and say "Yeah right. Whatever." Or instead you say, "Wow, that's pretty cool. Imagine driving down the street in that! It would be so comfortable. And you'd sure get noticed. That would be fun to own." He sighs and says, "Yeah. Maybe one day."
When we acknowledge how another person feels we don't get their hopes up. We just show that we see the world through their eyes. We get how they feel. And then we get on with things.
Children respond well to us when we allow them choices. Autonomy is important to them. When it is time to leave you might provide your little one with choices.
"Oh oh, it's time to leave. Would you like to listen to Play School Nursery Rhymes, or Giggle and Hoot in the car?" Or perhaps you might ask, "It's time to go. Would you like to stop for lunch at this place, or that place on our way home?" This is not about bribing as much as it is about reminding our child that there are things to look forward to beyond being at the shops, the park, the beach, or auntie's house.
It might be as simple as, "We've had our last five minutes. It's time to go. Would you like mummy to carry you to the car, or auntie, or daddy?"
There will be some days when these strategies work perfectly. There will be other days when you've got no other option but to pick your child up and carry him/her, screaming, to the car. Sometimes our children need to simply go where we are going when we say it's time to go. But when we communicate those transitions clearly, show empathy by granting them in fantasy what they can't have in reality, and offer them choices, we will usually find that they feel better about what we are asking, and we have more positive interactions together.