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When It’s Time to Leave: Toddlers and Transitions

Time spent playing at the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota is always time well-spent. Some families come and stay all day. Some groups visit for three hours. Some of our regular families stop in for just an hour sometimes, to break up the day or on their way to another activity (an excellent perk of membership!). No matter the length of your stay, there’s always one part that seems to give families a bit of a struggle: leaving. 

Toddlers and Transitions

Who would want to leave this amazing place? We get it. 

Whether you’re two or seventy-two, you probably don’t like to be interrupted when you’re having fun. We think of pushback or tantrums as a trait only of small children, but all ages are susceptible to disappointment when asked to quit doing something they love, especially if it’s to do something they don’t love, like going home to take a nap. 

In addition to disappointment, protesting leaving can be an exercise in boundary pushing. Small children test what they can get away with, or what they can negotiate, as a way to figure out life. 

When it’s time to leave, you might be met with sadness and anger, which manifests as a tantrum, or with defiance and negotiation, which can be just as frustrating. So, what can you do about it? 

First of all, know that this is 100% typical of all children at all ages of all temperaments. It might look different from person to person, but it is developmentally appropriate, and it does not make you a bad caregiver or parent. But there are ways you can minimize the effects. 

1. Be prepared for it to be hard.

Because it is expected, don’t be surprised when it’s a struggle. When you as the adult are prepared for the conflict, you are in a better mood. You aren’t taken by surprise. Knowing what’s coming allows you to stay grounded and neutral. When the adult’s emotions get hot, too, and begin to mirror the tantruming child, the child gets even more upset. 

2. Be sensitive to the child’s emotions. 

By recognizing what the child is feeling and naming it, they feel validated and learn that feelings of all kids are important. You can try these phrases:

-“You’re upset we’re leaving because you’re having fun; that is hard.” 

-“It’s sad to be done with activities when we enjoy them; I feel that way, too, sometimes.” 

-”I can tell you’re angry it’s time to leave; it’s okay to feel angry, but we still need to leave.” 

3. Be confident and firm in your decision. 

Children are excellent at trying to get more time, even going so far as to just run away. Having consistency in expectations sets you up for next time to be even easier. Our children need us to be loving, but they also need us to be sure about our decisions to feel safe and secure. If you waffle, and let them have ten more minutes, it shows them you weren’t committed. 

4. Set expectations early.

Even if you think small children are too young to understand time, setting a goal or a timer and sharing it with them can make the clock the “bad guy” instead of you. You can show them the timer on your phone. “See? It says we can stay for 45 minutes. I will show it to you again when we have five minutes left. When it rings, it will be time to go.” You can also try letting your child choose one more thing to do: “There are five minutes left on our timer; choose one more thing to do, then we’ll head out.” 

5. Explain why it’s time to leave.

If you visit the Museum in the morning, maybe you’re leaving to go eat lunch. “It’s time to eat lunch, so we need to go home. I’m so hungry. What are you hungry for?” Or maybe you’re going somewhere else after the Museum, “Grandma is waiting for us at her house. Waiting can be really hard. Let’s get going, so Grandma doesn’t have to wait long.” 

6. Make it fun!

There’s always a way to incorporate PLAY! Letting them choose how to leave is a great one: “Should we go through the Grow Gallery on our way out, or through the seating area? Should we shuffle our feet or tiptoe?” Making observations on the way out is also fun: “Let’s list five blue things as we leave; whoever finds five first gets to open the door!” 

7. Low-stakes rewards can be helpful.

You can’t give them ice cream every time you leave somewhere, but if you plan ahead, rewards can be easy and free. One great tip is having a favorite toy, lovey, or snack waiting in the car. “Remember blankie is waiting in the car for some snuggles! Let’s go get some snuggles!” or “There’s a pack of crackers in the car. You can have it as soon as you’re buckled in.” 

8. Be kind and calm. 

Share a time it was hard for you to leave. Maybe something they would remember. “We were having a lovely breakfast yesterday when I had to leave for work. I knew I would miss you, but I had to leave anyway.” The more calm you can stay, the easier it will be for everyone. Never worry about being embarrassed. All caregivers experience this. 

9. If you absolutely have to, scoop them up. 

No one likes resorting to this method, but in some cases, it’s the only way. The best way to do this is to tell your child, “I can see it’s hard for you to listen right now. If you can’t leave on your feet, I will carry you.” And let them have one last chance to walk themselves. If they still don’t listen, tell them again you’ll be picking them up, “I am picking you up now, so we can leave peacefully.” 

Every time you can set a limit and follow through, you are growing your child’s trust in you. Remind them the Museum always looks forward to having them back next time, too, which we always find as a comfort when we have to leave. 

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