Let me be straightforward, this post is for a specific type of tantrum. We’ve all been there. It’s time for a bath, time to turn off the TV, clean up the toys, etc. What comes next? A tantrum, of course! In the education world, we call this “transition time” and teachers are always looking to speed up their transitions.
At my house, our transitions were SLOW. A snail’s pace. This was because every time we needed baby A to stop doing something she was enjoying doing, she would have a tantrum. It didn’t matter if we were trying to go to the doctor, give her a bath, or even go to a friend’s house. Always a tantrum. I needed to do something to get her to comply! After a significant amount of research, I found the answer: a timer, specifically a visual timer.
I’ll explain how it works, but first, I’ll answer a few questions…
Why does the tantrum happen?
Imagine you are in the middle of something important, and your partner comes to you and says, “we are leaving now.” Or worse, physically removes you from your location. Imagine how frustrating that would be.
I would have a lot to say if my husband did that, and I would probably yell. I would mostly be shocked, and I would wonder why he didn’t tell me sooner. It is the loss of autonomy that makes it so frustrating.
Now imagine instead, your partner tells you, “We have to leave in 5 minutes.” Sure, still frustrating, but at least now you get to choose how you wrap up what you are doing in those five minutes.
Our children feel the same way. They just want to feel like they have some autonomy. They’re having a tantrum because they were not expecting to have to stop what they’re doing.
Why does a timer help?
We all know our little ones struggle to express their emotions. When they are in the middle of something that they think is important, they need time to process that you are about to force them to do something else. I know, I know, “force” makes it sound so… well, forceful, but that’s how they feel! When you let your child know how much time they have left in their current activity, it gives them time to wrap it up. The best part about this is that it works even if they don’t have a concept of time yet– if you use a visual timer!
What is a visual timer?
A visual timer is probably the most useful tool for parents! It is essentially a timer with a block of color that begins to disappear as the time runs out. This allows kids who don’t understand time to visualize how much time is left.
Regardless of age, it helps kids understand the passing of time. It makes it really easy for them to understand that time is running out and they need to hurry up.
There are many options, for one minute or less, 30 minutes or less, 60 minutes or less, etc. There are also some apps!
When you know you will have to stop your child from an activity, give them a heads up. You tell them how much time they have left and set the visual timer. Then, place the timer somewhere they can easily see it. While the timer is going, make comments aloud to reinforce the timer. You might say, “there is still some red left, but when the red is all gone, we are going to have to take a bath.”
Depending on the age, I would recommend 5-10 minutes. The older they are, the more complex their play is, and therefore the more time they need. Overall, you don’t want it to be so much time that they will spend some of it complaining, but you want it to be enough time to wrap up what they are doing.
If they are old enough, you can have your child be the one to set the timer. You may even allow them to help you determine how much time is enough time. You could say, “do you think 5 minutes would be enough time to finish what you’re doing?” This only works if you have more than 5 minutes to spare, but it does help kids come to terms with the agreement a bit easier.
The most important thing is you always follow up after the timer goes off. Now it is time for them to do what you asked. You cannot allow it to be a conversation after the timer is up; otherwise, they will never take it seriously. That’s just like a parent counting to three, and nothing happens when they get to three. If you allow them to change the rules after the timer goes off, you just wasted your time.
At first, you may find they still have a tantrum even though they knew it was coming. If you continue this practice and stick with it, you will find that the tantrums get shorter and less frequent until they disappear entirely.
This has been life-changing for me, and I hope it is for you as well! Let me know in the comments if you use a visual timer and tell me how it goes!