This is my favorite and probably most helpful blog post so far. Even though there are only 9 strategies, they are powerful. They take practice and experimenting to see what works best for your child, but you will find something here that helps if your child has an issue with transitions or getting stuck when disappointed. Print it, return to it, and contact me if you need clarification for using these strategies with your child.
What do you do when your child wants something and can’t get past you saying “no”?
What if she can’t transition from one activity to another?
What if he had an unpleasant interaction with another child at school or a sibling and feels sad but can’t talk about it?
What if she lost a board game and can’t let it go?
There are many circumstances that can cause a child to get “stuck”. There may not even be an apparent trigger. In this case if it happens a lot pay attention to things such as whether your child is sleepy, hungry, too hot, too cold, had a lot of sensory input throughout the day and may be overwhelmed. (For instance, were you out at community events? Was there a new situation that day, a substitute at school, or a new expectation?)
In these situations, a child is usually described as shutting down or melting down. And if it’s at a time when you are in a rush to get out the door then it can be a battle of the wills.
So what do you do?
I see this behavior frequently in some children with developmental delays, autism, and anxiety. I think that ultimately it is often a result of an underlying anxiety, even though it isn’t always obvious and many children with this issue do not have a formal diagnosis. The thing about anxiety is that it isn’t always consistent and other factors contribute, from how one feels to other experiences that day.
Don’t you worry, though, parents and teachers! I am giving you some strategies. Most of these will work but not all of them will work on your timeline or every time. Some are better than others when you have a time crunch.
- Keep language simple.
The fewer the words the better. Always.
- Make the expectation clear. Allow time to process.
“The expectation is to wash your hands.” Start here. Say just what is expected without any additional language then don’t say or do anything else (basically try to ignore them) and see if they can work it out themselves. Much of the time they can when they are given the time and space, especially if you have moved on too.
- Modify the expectations.
If you need your child to do something and they are in this “stuck” space, you may need to simplify your expectations. For instance, say that you have asked your child to put on their socks and shoes and they aren’t making a move to do this. It’s important that they listen to you and do as you ask, but there are a lot of steps involved in this task. You can offer to help (ask first, especially if they have sensory sensitivities). You can put socks on their toes and ask them to finish. That way they aren’t getting out of doing as you ask, but you are helping them move on.
- Avoid adding sensory stimulation (for some children)
Getting “stuck” can be common in children who have sensory sensitivities and sensory input can be especially troubling for a child at this time. If this is true for your child try to avoid touching them. If possible, keep the environment free of other distractions (like other children approaching them, keep the lights low, avoid unnecessary noise, etc.).
- Realize that this may not be an act of defiance.
Some children do not have the neurological connections to interrupt this “stuck” pathway on your timeline. Sometimes it’s not that they won’t do something, it’s that they can’t. Even if it is something that they have done easily before, they don’t have the skills in that moment to actually make it happen.
- Provide Forced Choices
They may not be able to do all of the activity at that time if there are multiple steps. Give them a “choice” among the tasks left so that not participating at all is not an option. For instance, if they have to put some toys away- “Do you want to put the doll or the car away?” Sometimes you may have to think about breaking down the task to see that there is more than one step. “Do you want to open the toy box or put the car in?’
- Avoid adding any new demands
Once I observed a child who was not following directions and on the verge of a tantrum. The teacher was calm and sweet. She asked the child if he wanted help to complete the task and the child said he did. Awesome-he was about to do what he was supposed to! But then the teacher asked this child to use his words to ask for help. Noooo! It was too much to ask of him at that time. We want him to be able to ask for help, but this is not a teachable moment for that (plus he answered the question, why should he have to ask it when you just offered it?).
“First wash hands, then [insert preferred activity]”. Don’t say more than this. Use a visual “first-then” board to help.
- “Interrupt” them
This can be like pressing a reset button. Then you return to the expectation.
FIRST, IT’S IMPORTANT TO MENTION THAT THIS IS NOT A REWARD OR BRIBERY. It’s a way to interrupt that neurological pathway because they lack the skills to do this. Although it goes against conventional wisdom to allow your child to do something that is motivating at these times (because it seems like you are rewarding behavior), but it can be a really powerful strategy.
Movement can be really powerful to move past those moments. However, anything motivating to the child can help “reset” even if it isn’t on this list or considered “sensory” provided it is brief or is something that doesn’t have a clear beginning and end and can be stopped at any time, and is easily accessible. This will not usually involve pulling out video games or getting in the car and driving 20 minutes to the playground. You will need to return to the situation to process it.
Some ideas that I’ve seen be successful:
- Go for a walk
- Blow/Pop bubbles
- Play catch
- Bat a balloon
- Have a race of some kind—kids love to race, so running by itself in the moment might feel more like a chore than if you make it a race
- This is a great moment to meet the needs of your child and your pet—take the dog for a walk, pull a string for the cat, play fetch, etc.
- Maybe there is a favorite toy that you only pull out occasionally*
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*Caution with noise-making toys. Children who tend to get “stuck” on something often have sensory sensitivities and things that make noise can make the situation worse
The sillier and more fun you can make it, the better. You want to distract them from what has them stuck. This will not be easy if you are having a power struggle with your kid, but if you find your inner child and have a moment of fun you will both be able to move on. Depending on your child’s age and personality you may need to give them a choice of things.
You may need to introduce this by pulling it out and using it yourself where they can see you.
Once your child has calmed down and the reset button is set, you will probably need to process the situation with your child. (Your language will depend on the age and whether there are language delays. “I know you were disappointed about not being able have time to play video games before school, but there isn’t time. It’s something you can do after homework.”
“I was wondering if something happened at school that made you upset. Would you like to talk about it? Is there something I could do to help?”
“I’m sorry you lost your board game today. Sometimes that happens.”
You may not have time at that moment to delve into a full lesson about not always getting your way or losing happens when you play games. Show some empathy—take this as a lesson for you that your child lacks the skills to deal with this. If your child has difficulty reading at their grade level will you become angry that they do not have that skill yet? You can help them learn to make the connections to handle things when they are stuck, just like you can help them learn their letter sounds.
This does not have to be a long process that makes you late for work and your child late for school. Try it next time this comes up and let me know how it goes.
Want a printable version of this post? Get it here: Getting Unstuck