A note on difficult transitions

We went to a new play-park this week and when it was time to go home for dinner Little Miss M was unable to leave. I’m sure most (if not all) parents experience their children not wanting to leave somewhere from time to time. Parents of toddlers in particular might even encounter a ‘battle of wills’ or even tantrums of epic proportions in the process but for PDA children these transitions can spark anxiety and fear and their need to feel in control can feel like a real life or death need, not to mention that being asked to leave is a demand and their natural instinct is to avoid demands. The more we the parent (or anyone else) pushes for them to cooperate, the bigger the threat of danger feels to them and the more demand avoidance they experience.

Initially she ignored us when we said it was time to go and just kept playing her make-believe game but we knew she needed to feel in control in this moment in order for the transition from park to car to go smoothly and without increasing her anxiety – past experience has taught us how quickly a difficult transition can escalate to anxiety overload, quickly followed by a meltdown if we push for her to cooperate without any flexibility or distractions – so we dug deep into our toolbox of PDA-friendly strategies to try and accomplish as calm a transition as possible.

We tried offering her something we thought she would think was better than staying – a Happy Meal from McDonald’s on the way home but without hesitation she said no and ran off to play. This was a subtle sign that she was more anxious than it would appear on the surface as she only turns down a Happy Meal when anxiety and demand avoidance levels are high.

We tried joining her in her game (Minecraft in real life) to gently steer the game in the direction of leaving – “there’s a creeper coming” she shouted, “follow me” I said, “I know where we can be safe from a creeper… (the car)” but she dismissed my idea and turned the direction of the game back to the play equipment with a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

We tried reasoning and explaining in more detail why we wanted to leave but she became even more engrossed in her game, oblivious to us being there and looking back I can see that it was too much information for her to process on top of her ‘hidden’ anxiety (hidden because to the unknowing eye, she appeared to be happily playing and just ignoring us rather than the anxious child she actually was, clinging onto control in order to feel safe).

At this point we sat on a bench and thought about our options. Remembering how often this used to happen when she was younger and how, after countdowns and negotiations for more time, we would eventually sweep her up in our arms and blow raspberries or do something silly to make her laugh and distract her from the upset of leaving. We thought back then that it would become much easier to leave places when she was older and we could reason with her. And in truth, that can sometimes be the case, just as it can sometimes be the case that other distraction strategies can work to help her transition from one place to another without fear or anxiety or help her to overcome demand avoidance (we’ve successfully sung, danced, acted, raced and silly-walked through transitions many a time) but how very difficult it is that none of them work consistently.

We decided that our efforts on this occasion were being counter productive and the best thing we could do at this point was to sit back and give her more time and see if her play there would come to a natural end rather than persist and enter into a ‘power struggle’ as her need for control and anxiety would inevitably increase.

We watched her play from the bench waiting for a sign that she was ready and able to leave…

Time passed by and although she didn’t reach the point of saying she was ready to leave (I’m not sure if she would have to be honest), she did start to talk and engage with us again – a sign that she was less anxious and feeling safer. I decided to try again and told her our parking time was almost up. She asked what that meant and I explained that we would have to pay lots of money if we went past the time we were allowed to park there and not wanting to do that, she decided we should leave right away and avoid the parking fine.

It was a relief to reach this conclusion. The goal is always to keep transitions as calm and safe as possible for her so she can manage them without becoming overloaded by anxiety or meltdown. They’re hard to achieve though and when other people are around during a difficult transition, I can feel like our parenting is under scrutiny because this is where parenting the PDA way really goes against the grain – if we were to insist we leave, Little Miss M would become overwhelmed by fear so being flexible and patient and prepared to compromise are all essential in navigating difficult transitions as well as creative thinking and remembering to keep language indirect and expectations low. No matter how difficult or unconventional it its though, I know it’s what’s best for our daughter.