Tips for Avoiding Meltdowns During Transitions

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Most children with ADHD struggle with transitions. When these happen frequently and escalate into meltdowns, tantrums, and defiance, everyone in the family is affected. These behavior challenges can cause families to stop doing some of the things they enjoy because it is so difficult to get their children ready and out the door. Other times, they cause parents to avoid setting rules around things like screen time, getting to the dinner table on time, or starting homework because they don’t feel like they can handle the emotional outbursts from their children. 

Consistent routines and expectations are essential for helping children with ADHD manage transitions, but they may not be enough for those who struggle the most. Here are other suggestions that might help:   

  1. Start with the basics: food and sleep. Emotional or disruptive outbursts during transitions are amplified by fatigue and hunger. When a child is tired or hungry, they may be able to hold it together just enough when they are engaged in an activity they enjoy, but when they must transition to something else, it can cause a meltdown. Make sure that your child is getting the recommended amount of sleep each night based on the sleep guidelines supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and stick to a predictable meal and snack schedule that will fuel your child throughout the day. 
  2. Look for patterns and consider hidden causes. Chances are that your child does not struggle equally with all transitions. Think about the transitions that are the most challenging. If the worst transitions always involve stopping screen time, work on new strategies for managing screen time with your child. If they always occur when your child is about to start homework, frustration related to homework may be the real problem. Sometimes meltdowns seem sporadic, but when you take a step back, you can find a common thread. For example, some children have their worst transition meltdowns when they are starting an activity that involves socializing with other children—a clear trigger for children with underlying social anxiety.  
  3. Allow more time. Meltdowns are more likely to happen when you are under pressure and can’t be patient with your child. Staying patient and calm when you are pressed for time is a tall order. Couple this with the fact that children with ADHD need more time than most to get through transitions, and you have a recipe for a meltdown. Assume that your child will need twice as much time as you usually allow and give them this extra time every day for at least a week as an experiment. You may be surprised by how much this helps. 
  4. Do not negotiate with your child. Many behavior challenges and meltdowns during transitions involve negotiations between parents and children. These negotiations are often a big source of conflict in families and a distraction that makes it nearly impossible for kids to move quickly. As a parent, you need to be vigilant about not letting your child deviate from their transition routine unless it’s absolutely necessary. Avoid bargaining with your child to get them to do what you’ve asked of them. If your child is trying to negotiate, don’t participate in the conversation, no matter how tempting it may be. Remember that it’s impossible for your child to negotiate with you if you simply don’t respond to their questions or demands.  
  5. Pay attention to your child’s emotions. During transitions, parents are often so overwhelmed by their own emotions and their child’s behavior that they forget to think about their child’s emotions. If you are able to stay calm and allow more time for transitions, you will have the space you need to truly focus on your child’s emotions. You’ll have the capacity to be attuned to what your child needs from you emotionally at the moment. For some children, a hug before and after the transition can go a long way toward helping things go more smoothly. Empathize with your child and let them know that you recognize how hard it is for them to stop doing something fun or get ready to start doing something they aren’t looking forward to. Let them know that there are ways to make these transitions easier. Connecting with your child during the hard moments can improve your relationship overall and help stop meltdowns before they start.   

Transitions might never be easy for children with ADHD, but you can minimize stress and frustration for you and your child when you find strategies that work for your family. If you think your child’s behavior and emotions during meltdowns are tied to other difficulties like anxiety, challenges with screen time, or learning differences, seek additional help from your child’s school, pediatrician, or mental health provider.  


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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