A parent recently sent me this message looking for help. “My biggest parenting struggle these days is getting my son dressed in the morning. He’s four and lately it has turned into a huge battle every morning. We’ve tried telling him we’ll read a story with him if he gets dressed on time. We’ve tried setting a timer and he gets a sticker if he’s dressed before it goes off (with rewards after a certain # of stickers). We talked to his pediatrician, who suggested taking him to school in his pajamas if he refused to put his clothes on–but he loved it! He’s normally a very sweet, cooperative guy (and getting ready for bed is so calm). I’m not sure what’s happening here or how to get out of this power struggle.”
RECONNECT WITH YOUR CHILD
Children crave “reconnecting” with the parent(s) in the morning after being apart overnight (this also happens after school). Parents are more successful if they spend 10 – 20 minutes in an activity with the child that makes the child feel important and special. The parent should refrain from speaking and let the child do all the talking. It can even mean just eating breakfast with the child and asking him open ended questions. A visual timer should be set, not audible. Audible timers and sticker charts don’t work for the most part. Plus the sticker charts become tiresome to maintain. Preschoolers live only in the moment and have great difficulty seeing ahead to the collection of stickers. If the child isn’t allowed to reconnect with the primary parent, then he will attempt to get that need met by running away from getting dressed or doing the opposite of what the parent wants him to do. In other words, avoiding what the parent wants him to do is his way of getting that connection through attention and feeling powerful.
PROVIDE POWER BY LETTING HIM CHOOSE
The parent can lay out two different outfits for the boy and let him pick which one he wants to wear. This will make him feel valuable and powerful and reduce the chances that he will initiate a power struggle. If the child asks for a different outfit from the two that mom laid out, mom should just calmly restate the original options one more time. If he won’t pick, the parent can say “You pick or mommy will pick for you,” and then follow through if necessary.
TAKE HIM IN HIS PAJAMAS
If the parent is already doing all of the above, then the pediatrician’s suggestion of bringing the child to school in his pajamas is a good one. But in order to make this work, it’s important to get the school to work with the parent by creating the requirement that the child cannot enter the classroom until he is completely dressed. This means that the parent must bring the change of clothes in a bag and hand the child and the bag over to a teacher, and then leave. It will be up to the “receiving” teacher to lay down the rule for the child and remain with him (outside of the classroom) until he dresses himself. The teacher should also refrain from showing any emotion (such as frustration) or speaking to the child. It’s important to note that this works because children often behave the worst only in the presence of the mother!
NEVER LET HIM SEE YOU SWEAT!
Preschoolers LOVE when they have the power to make adults react. If the parent is getting worked up over the child not putting on his clothes, such as yelling, scolding, reminding, etc., the child will love this. Therefore the parent must remain completely calm and silent so as not to give the child a reason to avoid getting dressed. The parent must behave as if it doesn’t even bother her and just be ready to leave.