Targeting morning trouble spots

If your mornings are all about yelling, bribing and cajoling, we've got tips for how to stop the insanity.

Photo Credit: Mark Burstyn

Could your house win the “Mornings from Hell” award? Author and family therapist Sara Dimerman posed this question to parents around the world, and half of them gave a resounding yes. Knowing that every other house on your street is having similar morning miseries might be reassuring, but it doesn’t answer why.

“Kids just don’t have that same sense of urgency as their parents,” says Dimerman. “When they feel they’re being forced to move quickly, they often don’t move as quickly.” You may feel you’re constantly arguing over cereal or socks, but the tug-of-war is about something much bigger.

“It’s a power struggle,” explains parent educator Doone Estey. “Parents think, ‘I’m in charge, I should be able to get my child to do this.’ The child realizes that and thinks, ‘I’m not going to be pushed around; you can’t make me do that.’” The solution is to simplify the process and make morning tasks things your kids want to do. Sound impossible? Read on!

Get them up
First, try to get up on the right side of the bed — or pretend you did: Estey suggests parents start the day with a “Hi, sweetie, how are you?” and a little hug. No orders, no “hurry up,” just that. “It’s more respectful, and it’s setting the tone,” she explains. Estey, a mom of four, had to force herself to do this every morning, but it made a huge difference.

Having trouble getting sleepyheads out of bed? At age 10 or 11, give kids the responsibility of setting their own alarms and getting up on time. “Most kids will resist, but they can do it,” says Dimerman. If you can manage it, allow kids to experience the natural consequences of sleeping in, such as a late slip or seeing the principal, rather than writing a note. “Sometimes that does a lot more to solve the problem than anything we can do,” she says.

Estey goes one step further: “If they’re old enough to leave behind, that should happen sometimes.” Just say you won’t be late because they won’t get out of bed, and they’ll have to find their own way to school.

Try this: “Sometimes, when my daughter’s having a hard time waking up, we read together while she snuggles under the covers for a few extra minutes.” – Lisa Bendall, Toronto

Get them fed
We know — it’s the most important meal of the day. But is it worth fighting over? Our experts say no.

Recognize how your child’s temperament plays into breakfast battles, says Dimerman, such as making sure your slow eater gets up earlier. “Some children aren’t hungry in the morning and they do better to have a sandwich, apple or muffin on the way to school.”

Estey suggests this approach: “Say, ‘This is breakfast time. Here’s the food, and it’s up to you if you’re going to eat it or not. But when the clock shows this time, either breakfast is over, or you put it in a baggie and bring it with you.’” By giving kids the choice, the power struggle is avoided. “A lot of times they’ll think, ‘Man, I’m hungry. Next time I’m going to eat breakfast.’”

Try this: “I taught my kids at ages three and four to get their own breakfast. The key was to have the bowls and cereal at the kids’ level so they could reach them.” – Pat Brethauer, Sarnia, Ont.

Get them dressed
Lay out clothes the night before, with your child’s stamp of approval, recommends Dimerman, and as early as possible, encourage children to dress themselves, with clothes that are easy to put on.

What if your child dawdles or refuses to get dressed? Estey suggests an unconventional tactic (prepare your kids ahead of time that this will happen): “Pleasantly say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re still not dressed, but it’s time to go’ and put the clothes in a bag and have the child get into the car in her pyjamas. Tell her you hope she’ll have a chance to get her clothes on before the bell rings.” If this spurs her into action, let her get dressed (quickly!). The result? The choice to get dressed is left with your child.

Try this: “We pick out five outfits for the week on Sunday night. They can pick any of their outfits in any order they like, so it still gives them a chance to choose, but saves so much time in the mornings.” – Jennifer B., via Facebook

Get them moving
Does your child get lost in his book or sidetracked by every shiny thing that crosses her path? Younger kids often respond well to checklists, with photos of their tasks in chronological order so that they can tick each one off. Estey recommends picking your battles based on what absolutely needs to be done in terms of health and safety.

For example, kids need to brush their teeth — that’s non-negotiable. If you send your son to brush and he never returns, try taking him into the bathroom and supervising instead — do yours while you’re at it. You then know the essential task is done.

Keep in mind, too, that dawdling is a great way to get a parent’s attention. Estey says there’s little incentive for a child to get moving on his own if mom is following him around the house nagging. So remove yourself as the source of attention. Standing at the door and declaring that it’s time to go, or that you’re waiting in the car, will often light a fire under your child.

Try this: “I have a timer that goes off. They get to play until first buzz, that means breakfast. Second buzz means it’s time to get dressed, the next means shoes and backpacks, and the final one is off to the bus stop. They like it because they get some playtime, but at the buzz, they stop and do their task fast, like a game.” – Meagan Paullin, via Facebook

Get them inspired
The hard truth: Morning organization starts with you and if you model and teach it now, your kids can take over, and you’re back to sipping your java with your feet up. “It’s not your role to ensure everything gets done,” says Estey. “Your role is to train the kids to do it on their own.”

Brainstorm ideas for a morning routine that works for everyone, including what’s for breakfast and what time everyone must be out the door. “Then the kids know the expectations, and they’ve had a say,” says Estey.

Dimerman says that getting up earlier than your kids is essential to success. You may cringe at cutting into your sleep time, but waking up with your kids is the worst possible scenario. She explains: “Everyone stumbles out of bed together, and it doesn’t give you enough time to get geared in to the morning psychologically.”

Try this: “All our clocks are set five minutes ahead. We haven’t been late in a long time!” – Jennifer Miller, Corunna, Ont.

Mornings can be hectic, but Estey urges parents to avoid parenting “to get through the day,” and instead focus on raising responsible, independent people. “Kids need challenges, they need to make some mistakes, they need to be able to problem-solve when they forget their sneakers. Build in the time to teach them now — it’s never too early.”

This article was originally published August 3, 2011. 

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