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Humans are creatures of habit. Even when we welcome it, change takes more energy. So perhaps it’s not surprising that children often find it difficult to make transitions between activities, places, and objects of attention. Being asked to stop one thing and start another is a very common trigger for problem behavior, especially for kids who have emotional or developmental challenges.

“Transitions are hard for everybody,” says Dr. David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “One of the reasons why transitions may be hard is that we’re often transitioning from a preferred activity – something we like doing – to something that we need to do.”

What does trouble with transitions look like?

Difficulty with transitions can manifest in a number of ways depending on the child and the setting. It can take the form of resistance, avoidance, distraction, negotiation, or a full-blown meltdown. Some of these reactions are the result of kids being overwhelmed by their emotions. And some are what they’ve learned works to successfully delay or avoid the transition.

A child told it’s time to leave the playground might throw a tantrum initially because he can’t manage his anger or frustration, but if he’s found that it has worked to delay leaving the park, he’s more likely to do it again. “It really depends on how the adults in his life have responded,” says Dr. Matthew Rouse, a clinical psychologist in the ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. Other kids may not tantrum but instead master the art of whining, distracting, or negotiating with the adults in their life.

What’s behind transition problems?

While transitions are triggers for lots of kids – what parent hasn’t gotten resistance from a child being asked to stop playing a video game and come to dinner? – they are particularly difficult for kids with emotional and developmental issues. And while the behaviors may be the same, experts point out that the reasons behind the behavior are different for kids with different challenges. Here we look at why children with ADHDanxietyautism, and sensory processing issues, find transitions particularly difficult.