A Word on Transitions

My son, H, started physical therapy when he was six months old and his physical therapist was the first to introduce me to sensory processing disorder. I was at the height of my anxiety as a new mom whose baby was not developing typically and I desperately wanted to know how sensory processing challenges would manifest throughout H’s development. Every week, I would bombard his PT with questions on this topic.

I vividly remember her responding to one of my lengthy inquiries by explaining that children with SPD tend to have “trouble with transitions.” I nodded as if I knew exactly what she was talking about, though I had absolutely no clue. Like the mountain of books I was devouring on SPD,I understood the words, but I didn’t understand what they meant.

Fast forward to H as a 20-month-old, screaming like he was being tortured when I interrupted his play to change his diaper. Ooooohh, so this is what “trouble with transitions” means. Got it. Shit. Hello, Anxiety! In my mind, I envisioned this as the beginning of an intense and exhausting new part of our SPD reality that H would struggle with throughout the rest of his childhood (I’m good at catastrophizing).

At the time, I was in a Mommy & Me group with moms of toddlers who were H’s age. At one of our weekly meetings, our group leader brought up the topic of transitions. Several moms began to share stories about their kids screaming, fussing, and basically becoming giant pains in the asses during transitions in nap-times, play-times, bed-times, car rides...it seemed like every kid was a nightmare when their schedule was interrupted just a tiny bit. Wait a minute, I thought, this isn’t really a sensory processing thing, it’s just a developmental thing. See, I reassured myself, H is not atypical. Phew! Chill out, Anxiety.

The relief didn’t last long. It soon became clear that while it was true that other kids fussed and had a hard time during transitions, H’s meltdowns were on a different level. A whole other Defcon 5 level. For H, a transition-induced meltdown could last up to 45 minutes with screaming that reached quite an impressive decibel. Ok, so this is what his PT was referring to. Got it. Shit. Welcome back, Anxiety.

From then on, when friends and family asked me to explain how SPD affected Hunter, “He has trouble with transitions” was part of my explanation.

That is, until my husband and I consulted with Joe Newman, child therapist and author of Raising Lions. Having worked with severely behaviorally challenged children for more than two decades, Joe knows a thing or two about managing difficult behavior. After reading Raising Lions and having multiple “ah-ha” moments, I contacted Joe for an in-person consultation. At the time, we were in what I euphemistically to refer to as a “rough patch” with H. He was four and, yes, transitions were still a nightmare.

During the consultation, Joe asked me if H had a difficult time with transitions, to which I responded emphatically, “Yes!” Please explain, he prodded. “Oh my gosh, where do I begin? When it’s time to leave the park...massive meltdown. When it’s time to eat dinner and he has to stop playing...meltdown. Time to brush teeth and get dressed? Meltdown of epic proportions.”

Joe nodded empathetically. “Let me ask you something, how does he do with the transition from finishing dinner to returning to his play? Or the transition from finishing bathtime to reading his favorite book?”

“Yeah, um, those kinds of transitions don’t seem to cause any problems….” I could see where he was going.

Wearing an understanding grin, Joe explained, “Your son doesn’t have a transition problem, your son has a behavioral problem stemming from a combination of a more sensitive nervous system and a lack of clear and consistent boundaries.”

He went on to explain that children who truly struggle with transitions, struggle with all transitions, not just transitions from a preferred to a non-preferred activity.

Whoa. This changes everything.

Because I had conceptualized H’s behavior as a sensory-related “transition” problem, I had been making allowances for it, inadvertently catering to his negative behavior rather than setting firm and consistent limits which would give him the opportunity to practice self-regulating, eventually helping him to move through his meltdowns more quickly and with more ease. The result? I had a child with too much power who was giving my husband and me a serious run for our money (read: We were on the verge of losing it!).

Joe gave us a protocol with specific actions and language for setting consistent boundaries in a firm and compassionate way in order to decrease H’s tantrums and power struggles. The result? Transitions are no longer my nemesis.

Last week, we were at the park and another mom struck up a conversation with me. She started venting about her 3 ½ year old and how he was really “struggling with transitions.” “Oh yeah,” I commiserated, “we’ve been there.” I paused and then added, “Let me ask you something, does he meltdown during every transition or just the transitions from something he wants to do to something he doesn’t want to do?” I could see the wheels turning as she gave it some thought. Five minutes later she was ordering Raising Lions from her Amazon app.

For tips on how to decrease your child's negative behaviors, click here. And for tips on how to manage your own reactions to your child's challenging behaviors, click here.

Does your child struggle with transitions? All transitions or just transitions from preferred to non-preferred activities? What strategies do you use to minimize the struggle? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear from you.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.