Mixed race mother helping son to dressFirst published in the Natural Parent Magazine

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?! We’ll get to the 7 ‘secrets’ in a second but first I want to talk about some overarching ideas that play a big part in having success with getting your toddler to do, well… anything!!

Centre, Connect, Communicate

Instead of “How can I make him…?”, think about “How can I help him…?”. As parents, we tend to focus on what we need to achieve. But the more stressed we become, the more resistant our child tends to become, and hence managing stress is a big part of the solution. Using my Centre, Connect, Communicate model, first focus on getting centred and releasing a bit of your stress. Then truly connect with your child as that will totally change how the communication works.

Centre:  To become more centred, it can help to see the power struggle as your cue to slow down and truly listen to your own feelings and bring in some self-empathy first. “Oh wow this is so stressful, I feel so stretched right now” (even 5 seconds can start to change the mood). 

Connect:  Then truly listen to your child and practice active listening and generally in one way or another, show that you’re really there for them. “Hey honey you’re loving playing with your Lego aren’t you? Show me what you’re making”. It’s amazing how children start to settle and are able to better listen to their parent when they pick up that their parent is truly caring about what’s going on for them, what they feel and what they need.

Communicate:  After taking even five minutes to become more centred and working to make a connection through active listening, coming down to his level, and affectionate touch that shows that you’re not annoyed at him, then you can try using play, holding a loving limit or problem solving together, which I’ll describe below.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner]

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 of them then become 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 more important). 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 resistance when uncomfortable feelings have become associated with that thing or activity

Or even a food, place or person. No matter the reason for their resistance, taking the tension out of getting a toddler dressed is the way to go. It’s not easy to maintain a calm, patient, light-hearted demeanour to help our child feel less pressured. But usually, that’s what is 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

Temporarily letting go of the agenda is what usually works best at these times, which I know is super hard! Try to 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?”. As parents, we tend to focus on what we need to achieve, of course!  There’s so much to achieve in any one day or hour! But the more stressed we become, the more disconnected and resistant our child tends to become. Hence managing our stress is a big part of the solution.

2.   Empathy

Often the child’s resistance is their way of communicating that they’re a bit anxious about separating from their parent when 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. 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”.

3.   Play!

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!”. To keep that stress-releasing laughter rolling, you could add: “Imagine if I arrived at the office on a flying carpet, and dressed in my PJs. 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!

Nearly anything that makes getting a toddler dressed more fun and engaging will almost always invite 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, 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?”. 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!”. This one was a hit with my son every time, he loved the challenge.

In his amazing book Playful Parenting, 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, and then chirpy willingness to get dressed. Enacting tricky situations with any kind of toy or figurine is often a great way of shifting the dynamic.

Parenting is seriously hard work! Shifting into silly mode when stressed and under pressure is hard, 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 when they use 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.

5.    Loving limits

Another peaceful parenting technique that could help (it’s  often trial and error 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 in which he is engaged. 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. It’s hard, I know. 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. Many that they don’t even understand; 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. “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 in the matter can help children feel less controlled and powerless and hence invite more engagement.

7.   Quality time together seems to be the magic solution to nearly all parenting problems!! 

Factoring ten minutes of quality one-on-one time into your morning can help your child feel secure and connected. Also, agree with your child to fit in some play time 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 into the power struggle, remember that if you can invest a bit of time and focus into reconnecting with your child, you’ll likely regain their attention and cooperation. Children tend to listen to their parent as much 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! Try out some of these tips next time you’re getting your toddler dressed and let me know how you get on, what worked, what didn’t work?

Genevieve Simperingham is a Psychosynthesis Counsellor, a Parenting Instructor and coach, public speaker, human rights advocate, writer and the founder of The Peaceful Parent Institute. Check out her articles, Peaceful Parenting eCourses, forums and one-year Peaceful Parenting Instructor Training through this website or join over 90,000 followers on her Facebook page The Way of the Peaceful Parent.

1 Comment
  1. […] many of the battles around dressing, eating, bathing, brushing teeth and car seats stem from the child tensing up in nervous […]

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