Thriving during Transitions from Your Child’s Flow State to What is Next

The intensely positive emotions that come with being in complete command of one’s actions, and the pure joy of being in a flow state, may create difficulty for children when they are interrupted and asked to transition to another activity. FLOW TO LEARN’s parenting advisor Susanne reflects below on what she brings to these moments with her two children:

Art by Sybille Kramer
Illustration from Flow To Learn by Sybille Kramer

If my children aren’t ready to stop playing when it’s time to switch to another activity, I try to get a clear answer from them about when they can finish. Although hollering from another room is quite tempting, especially when I’m involved in my own activity, ideally, I will go to them, gently make eye contact, and let them know it’s time to transition to what’s happening next.

Working with Carmen, I have learned that a deep flow state feels like a different reality to a child. They can become so engrossed in flow that they might hear a voice, but it might seem far away, and they may not realize they’re being asked for a response, even when the person asking is close by. I’ve often wished I could hear the inner workings of my son’s flow state when I’m right next to him, speaking directly to him, but he doesn’t hear me. I used to feel certain he was ignoring me in these moments. Now, I can clearly see that when this happens, he’s aware of me and knows I am talking to him, but he appears to be “ finishing his thought” deep inside his flow state before he’s able to be present and ask me to repeat myself. To a parent who is unaware of this level of focus like I was, it might seem that a child is purposely disregarding them, which could be taken personally and lead to a frustrated parent.

Understanding this, when my children ( five and three years old) are deeply in flow, I might get close to them, touch their backs or arms gently, and ask them calmly or in a fun way to make eye contact. A sing-song voice works wonders in this context, as it creates an inviting way for them to make the shift (I’m not always able to muster the sing-song voice, and that’s okay too). Once we’re all in the same world, I will offer the advance notice: “In 15 minutes we’ll be cleaning up. Are you at a good stopping point? No? Okay, please find one soon. Would you like to set the timer?” When the timer rings, if they haven’t finished (usually, no one has), I take a deep breath and remember their job is to push back, and that it’s never personal.

Illustration from Flow To Learn by Sybille Kramer

Time and again it’s been clear to me that how I’m feeling and the state of my own inner world are inextricably connected to my children’s sense of safety (and thus, their behavior). If I approach a transition like this with the stress or worry from the day in the forefront of my mind, chances are it’s going to affect how I interact with the kids, even if I do stay calm. I try not to take this on as additional pressure to be the perfect parent, but instead use it as a gentle reminder to check in with my own mood before interacting with the kids. I might breathe deeply and set my energy as squarely within a respectful parenting approach as I can. If I can’t set the stress aside for a bit, I might ask for help.

I have also noticed that if I anticipate a tug-of-war over transitioning away from flow activities, I’m more likely to get pulled into that energy. On the other hand, when I take a few moments to ground myself as their confident leader, think of what I love about them, and interrupt as gently as possible, my job becomes easier. I’m better able to listen. I’m more able to express clearly and calmly the rules that must be followed in that moment, even if I think they should know the rules by now. I’m better able to speak quietly as I let them know there is no chance of negotiation and that I will help them move their bodies if they cannot do so.

Staying calm when it’s loud and emotional is not easy for me, and I am so grateful for all the times I tried using the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach based on my faith in the evidence, without first seeing any proof that it would work for us. Even though I’ve been practicing RIE for many years now, I am still amazed by how the kids can go from full, soaring emotions one minute to truly contented and relaxed a short time later, when they feel safe, and when they feel seen. There may be tears, messes, and upset along the way. It will never be a perfect process or become miraculously effortless. But when I meet our kids where they are, with respect and support, honoring their world as important too, they can let go of the bliss of flow states and move into the next phase of the day within a space of emotional safety, and with their dignity intact.

Parent Advisor Susanne Stover shares in Flow To Learn: A 52-Week Parent’s Guide to Recognize and Support Your Child’s Flow State – the Optimal Condition for Learning by Carmen Gamper

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