Every parent of young children has had at least some of those pulling their hair out moments when they’re needing to get out the door, but their child has zero interest in getting dressed! Situations like this can feel so stressful and often result in parents bribing, threatening or yelling out of sheer powerlessness and exasperation! Sound familiar?!
When a child is digging their heels in and the parent keeps trying to coax them, parent and child both get caught in a tug of war, both super focused on their agenda: Parent: “you NEED to get dressed!”. Child: “I don’t WANT to get dressed”. Or the one that really gets most parents hot under the collar, when the child completely ignores their parent’s pleas, but just keeps pulling the toilet paper off its roll or whatever else that they consider to be the most important thing to do just as the other neatly dressed children are enthusiastically arriving at kindy ready to embrace their day! Or so we imagine in those moments of helplessness!
Children easily develop resistances when some uncomfortable feelings have now become associated with that thing or activity or food or place or person. But whatever the reason for their resistance, taking the tension out of the topic of getting dressed is the way to go. It’s not easy to maintain a calm, patient, light hearted demeanour to help our child feel less pressurized, but that’s usually what’s needed. Some great ways to achieve this are using play, or expressing empathy, also problem solving, or holding a loving limit. I’ll give some examples of what these approaches can look like.
1. Let go of your agenda temporarily and reconnect.
What usually works best at these times is to temporarily let go of the agenda (which is super hard I know!) and shift the focus back towards connection. Instead of "how can I make her get dressed?", which always increases our stress, think about "how can I help her to focus on getting dressed?” We tend to hone in on what needs to be achieved as parents, of course!! There’s SO much to achieve in any one day or hour! But the more stressed we become, the more disconnected and hence resistant our child tends to become, so managing our stress is a big part of the solution.
Often the child’s resistance is their way of communicating that they’re a bit anxious about separating from their parent if they know that soon their parent is heading to work or dropping them at daycare. Parents often ask their child "why won't you just put your clothes on?", but in reality, the child isn’t generally able to identify and articulate the feelings driving their behaviour. Separation is generally difficult for young children and they need a lot of emotional support. Showing empathy can help to relieve some of the stress of separation. Instead of avoiding touching on that sore topic, it can really help sometimes to name just that: “oh honey, you really don’t want to get dressed do you, I wonder if you wish we didn’t have to leave the house? Do you wish you could stay with me all day long, every day?”.
And it can be particularly reassuring for a child to hear that their parent is going to miss them too; “I SO wish that I didn’t have to go to work and we could stay together all day, I’ll miss you too”. If this brings tears, this can release some of that stress. And when your child feels that you get how hard it is for them, that’s a good time to talk about what you imagine they’re going to enjoy; “let’s name your friends that you’ll see this morning at kindy”, then talk about what they might play together. This kind of communication is much more emotionally soothing and reassuring than simply saying “oh you’ll be fine, you’ll have lots of fun at kindy and won’t even miss me”.
Bringing in humour can also really help to take the tension out of power struggles; “wouldn’t it be SO fun if we had a magic carpet and I could take you to nursery on our magic carpet!! What would the other kids think of that?? And wouldn’t it be great if all the children were allowed to go to kindy in their PJs!! How funny would that be!!” And to keep that stress releasing laughter rolling, you could add; “and imagine if I arrived at the office on a flying carpet, and dressed in my P.J.s, how funny would that be!!” Fantasy can provide a welcome relief from the seriousness of having to do boring things they don’t want to do, like getting dressed!
Anything that makes getting dressed more fun and engaging, this nearly always invites more engagement and cooperation. For instance, with a cheeky smile, you might say; “ok well if you’re not going to wear your pants, I’ll wear them today and put his pants on your head” which he’ll probably find hilarious. Or start to pull his pants up your leg and the more ridiculous you can make the scenario the better. You can also make it a fun game and challenge by negotiating how long it will take them to go get their shorts and bring them back; “do you think you could bring them back here within the count of hmmm 10?” and they’ll usually up the ante and make it 5, and you count loudly all the time; “4 and a half, 4 and three quarters!” In his book Playful Parenting (amazing book!) Larry Cohen shares a lovely example of how he discovered that using dolls to narrate the getting dressed conflict between them resulted in lots of laughter, then chirpy willingness to get dressed. Enacting tricky situations with any kind of toys or figurines is often a great way of shifting the dynamic.
Parenting is seriously hard work! It's hard to shift into silly mode when you’re stressed and under pressure, but regaining cooperation is great motivation!
4. Problem solving is another approach to take.
Instead of simply telling him what to do, present the problem with curiosity; “hmm this is really tricky isn’t it. We need to leave in ten minutes and you're still not dressed. Hmm I can’t figure this one out, any ideas?” Children love challenges and they love questions, questions really engage their curiosity and sense of challenge. Many parents are surprised at how engaged their otherwise defiant child becomes with this problem solving approach. It gives them more involvement. It’s natural to either submit or rebel when feeling controlled (at any age). All these approaches help the child feel more involved, cared for and engaged.
Another peaceful parenting technique that could help (it’s a trial and error thing often hey!) is to hold the limit but stay calm and empathic. To more fully understand how this works, you can read my article “setting limits can bring healing tears and tantrums”. First connect with him and give some attention to the activity he’s engaged in. Then: “It’s time to get dressed. I know that getting dressed is hard for you honey, so I’m going to stay with you until you’ve got your shorts and top on. I know it’s hard, I really do care and I’m here to help you. How about I give you a big hug and fill up your love tank! Yes honey you wish you didn’t have to, you find this sooooooo very hard don’t you (facial expressions of empathy), let’s just focus on your t-shirt first. Children can tell when we’re holding strong and it can give them the strength to do that which feels hard to do.
6. Giving them some choice:
As adults we can forget how hard it can be for children to have so many restrictions, and many that they don’t even understand the reasons for, why can’t they just eat yummy sugary food and watch screens all day! They do of course need us to hold the loving limits, but we can be mindful of giving them simple choices like; “do you want to wear long pants or shorts”, “which of these t-shirts do you want to wear” or “do you want me to brush your hair first or help you get dressed?”. Having some choice and say can help children feel like controlled and powerless and hence invite more engagement.
7. Quality time together seems to be the magic solution to nearly all parenting problems!!
Factoring into your mornings ten minutes of quality one on one time can help your child feel secure and connected. Also, when you agree with your child that you’ll fit in some play before leaving the house once you’re both ready to go, the excitement can help to maintain their focus. From a peaceful parenting perspective, it's always important to tune in to the feelings and unmet needs driving the behaviour.
To sum up, when you get in to the power struggle, remember that if you can invest a bit of time and focus into reconnect with your child, you’ll likely regain their attention and cooperation. Children tend to listen to their parent as well as they feel listened to. There are so many ways to regain connection, whether it’s through empathy and active listening, coming down to your child’s level, affectionate touch, problem solving or play!
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, New Zealand and Australia