Toddler refuses to get dressed

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Katie asks:  I have read your article Peacefully parenting your strong willed child, and I totally agree with your explanation but I am missing a few pointers to help!!!  I manage most of the time to work with my little boy when he doesn’t want to do things by getting him to to a lot of things himself giving him more opportunity to make decisions etc.

I am having an awful time trying to get him dressed! He just wont do it without a fight and making him do it!
Obviously we do have to get dressed in the morning in order to leave the house for Nursery/work.

I have tried everything;  Ask him to help – doesn’t want to.   Doing it in 5/ 10 / 20 mins – doesn’t work.
Getting up earlier and all going up stairs after breakfast before any other activities to get dressed and then he can watch telly, play etc if he likes. – Doesn’t work.  Asking him why not? Just says he doesn’t want to.

This is every day… is waring me down and I hate wrestling with him to do it but I have to make it to work on time!  I have tried on none nursery days to have more of a lazy morning and work at his speed and still no joy.  We do spend lots of time together each day and also in evening after work. I can honestly say we connect lots throughout the day and I love spending time with him.

Please do you have any suggestions? He is 2 and 7 months very good at conversation and understanding when you talk to him. Very energetic. Loads of fun.  A Joy!

Genevieve's responses:  

Katie, this sounds really frustrating!  Situations like this can feel so stressful.  When a child is digging in their heels and the parent keeps trying to coax them, parent and child both get into a tug of war, both super focused on their agenda. Mum: “you need to get dressed”. Child: “I refuse to get dressed”. What usually works best at these times is to bring the focus back to connection.

Centre, Connect, Communicate:  Instead of "how can I make him ... ?", think about "how can I help him ... ?  We tend to hone in on what needs to be achieved as parents, of course!!  But the more stressed we become, the more resistant our child tends to become, so managing the 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 boy 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 him 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 be 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, 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.

Granting his wish in fantasy can feel very validating; “wouldn’t it be SO great if I didn’t have to work and we could stay at home together all day long!” Parents often ask their child "why won't you just put your clothes on?".  Yet, in reality, he himself won't understand why he resists and wouldn't be able to put words to it.  But when you show that you’re thinking and caring about the feelings driving his resistance, he may feel very relieved.

Bringing in warmth and humour can also really help to take the tension out of power struggles: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a magic carpet and I could take you to nursery on the 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!!”  If you can think of ways to make getting dressed more fun and engaging, this nearly always invites more engagement.  For instance, you might smile and 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.  The more you get into being silly, the better.  It's hard to shift into silly mode when your stressed and under pressure, but think of it as a project to change the dynamic and regain cooperation. Larry Cohen in his book Playful Parenting (amazing book!) talks about using cuddly toys or dolls or other figurines and enacting the challenge the child is having.

Releasing any negative associations that have built up:  Children easily develop resistances when some uncomfortable feelings have now become associated with that thing or activity or food or place or person. It sounds like this may have happened because even on non-nursery days, he doesn’t want to get dressed, but 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.  Great ways to release pent up negative feelings for children are through laughter which the play facilitates, or through stress releasing tears when you hold a loving limit.

Loving limits.  Another peaceful parenting technique that could help (it’s a trial and error thing often hey!) is to hold the limit but stay present and 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 his activity he was 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 now honey until you are dressed. I know it’s hard, I really care and I’m here to help you. How about I give you a big hug and fill you up with all the energy you need to put on your clothes? 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 one bit at a time, do you want to put on your pants, your top or your socks first?”

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.

Quality time together seems to be the magic solution to nearly all parenting problems!!  Maybe you could factor into these mornings ten minutes of quality one on one time, to help him feel really secure and connected with you.  From a peaceful parenting perspective, it's always important to tune in to the feelings and unmet needs driving the behaviour.  I wonder if his resistance is his way of communicating that he feels resistant to leaving the house and separating from you, it could help to name that: “oh honey, because you don’t want to get dressed, I wonder if you wish we didn’t have to leave?” showing care, openness and empathy.


Katie's response:  

Wow. Thank you so much for such a comprehensive reply. I really appreciate the time you took to write it!

Some great ideas that I have not tried so I will work through them and see what works!! 🙂

Shall print it out for Dad too! Lol.
Some great ideas that I have not tried so I will work through them and see what works!! 🙂

Shall print it out for Dad too! Lol.

Thanks so much


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