Getting a Three-Year-Old Out the Door in the Morning

Hi Dr. Rene,

I have a three-year and two-month old son. In the last month or so, it has been extremely difficult to get him to cooperate, so we can leave the house. He runs away when I try to get him dressed, get shoes and coat on, etc., and it is making it challenging to be on time for important things like picking his sister up from school. I try to leave extra time, but nothing so far has helped. If we are going somewhere he wants to go, it is a little easier, but he often says he wants to stay home and play, so it is very difficult when he does not want to go where we are going. Sometimes, if we cannot be a minute later, I have to force his shoes on and carry him to the car. It is very frustrating, and I know that he knows he has control over the situation when he runs away laughing as I follow him around with socks and shoes and a coat! How do I avoid making it a power struggle?  Also, if he refuses to put a coat on, and it’s cold out, should I let him go out without a coat? If I give him choices, he will tell me “neither.”  Thanks for any advice!

Sincerely, Amy

Mom of two

Hi Amy,

This is such a common time of day to struggle with children. I think the only time that tops getting out of the house is getting them in bed. The first thing I would do is build a schedule. Start by deciding what time you need to leave, let’s say this is 8:00 a.m. in the morning. Then, make a list of all the things that need to happen before you can leave, and decide about how much time can go for each. Then add 10 minutes, work your way backwards from 8:00 a.m. to figure out what time you and the kids need to get up and moving. That extra 10 minutes is time for him to work towards and you set it aside for him to play with legos, look at books or play with his trains. This way you can remind him, if you are getting dressed quickly you will have time for trains. It also give you a bit of a buffer, if the morning isn’t going well you have 10 extra minutes built in.

Really think through the order and logistics of things. If you are forever chasing him to get shoes on at the last minute, have his shoes on as part of getting dressed or shoes before breakfast. If you rush around each morning to pack his school bag, make packing his school bag part of the evening routine instead.

Once you have your schedule, work with your child to make it visual. Take pictures of him going through the process, find pictures online of the activities or help him draw the pictures, and then make a poster of the steps. Give him choices, if you can, about the order of the morning or of activities for how to spend his 10 minutes.

Then think job and choices. Jobs are making him the shoe picker or the cereal pourer and the light switcher on the way out or the car key carrier to unlock the door and let everyone in. These are easy and fun ways to help him buy into the behavior. An individual job may only be interesting for a day or two while others may be interesting for a few weeks (like the car key carrier or radio tuner). Choices are asking does he want to get dressed on the bed or the floor, does he want cereal or oatmeal or does he want his red coat or blue. Choices work because they share power. When he says “neither” to choices, you can reply, “you can choose, or I will choose for you.” If he participates then, fine. If not, you can choose for him and move on.

When all else fails, consequences are fair game. It is fine to say, “if you don’t have your shoes on, your feet might be cold,” and then swoop him up and go, putting the shoes on later. Hopefully, if you can accept this as just a part of the plan, it will be less frustrating when you use them.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

 

 

Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/teaching-patience/.

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

Introduction to Power Struggles

The first step to addressing a power struggle is to recognize when you are in one. Power struggles generally happen around tasks such as getting ready for bed, getting homework done or getting everybody up and out of the door in the morning. In parenting, a power struggle is defined as a time of the day that typically goes poorly. It’s a pattern that goes poorly often enough you may dread that time of day. If you just had difficulty today, but it’s usually smooth, that’s not a struggle it’s just a bad day.

If it truely is a power struggle, often the second step is to realize what you are doing as response is not working. If getting ready for bedtime is a struggle, likely you are chasing children around the room, yelling and wrestling them into their jammies. This is you participating in the struggle which validates it to be a push AND is likely repeating discipline patterns that aren’t working. The idea, once you realize you are in a struggle is to step back and change what you are doing as response. I am not saying give in, I know you have to get them dressed and ready for bed or feed something for dinner. I am saying change what you are doing in response. Shake up the dynamics of the struggle.

In power struggle moments rely on setting clear boundaries, positive directions, catching good behaviors and using contribution, choices and consequences. Use techniques to step out of the struggle rather than chase them around and struggle back.

To learn more about these techniques, join me for a morning workshop on managing power struggles. This is being held on Saturday, April 21st. For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/org/283710166?s=1328924.

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