How to Defeat Morning Battles

Posted By:

Whether your child is off to daycare,  school, camp, or an errand with you, it’s necessary to get out the door with a child that’s fed, dressed, and had his/her teeth brushed. (Hair brushing is optional. Am I alone on this?) These tasks can take a herculean amount of effort, especially when your child refuses to do them.  Is it a battleground for you? Is it “do as I say” time? Or is there a way to check off that morning to do list with grace and ease? Jody McVittie, MD says yes. Here she is with tips to help parents get their little ones where they need to go, peacefully. — Laurel Moglen, Web Content Manager, TMC

An interview with Jody McVittie, MD

What are a few tips you can share about making mornings move smoothly?

  • Make sure that you are not in a rush yourself. That may involve getting up earlier or being better prepared the night before. Our “energy” is contagious.
  • Our kids love us and need to know that they matter to us. Yes, even in the morning. Spend some time connecting before you go to tasks. When we rush around our kids feel like wheel-aboard luggage. They don’t like that and put on the brakes in a variety of creative ways. It is code for, “Connect with me!” and is not a conscious choice. Their body does it for them.
  • Develop routines. Yours and theirs. Involve them (at a time that is NOT the morning) in figuring out what needs to be done. Have them role play it and take pictures (waking up in pj’s, brushing teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast etc.) Have them help you make a poster of them doing their morning routine using the pictures you took. Post it where they can see it. Each child needs his/her own poster. Then let the routine be the boss. Instead of telling your child what to do, ask, “What is next on your poster/routine chart?” Do not give stickers/rewards or anything for following the routine. We do this because it is the right thing to do.

When kids put up fierce resistance to doing what you want them to do, how should parents react to get the job done?

A child’s resistance is code for I need to feel connected or I need to matter to you. Slow down and look at how you invited this.

Connect before correct. That means connecting to your child’s emotion and then stating what needs to happen. “Amelia, you seem mad that your red shirt is in the laundry. You were hoping to wear it and it is really disappointing. Since it isn’t available, how do you want to solve the problem?” “J.D., looks like nothing is going right this morning. Want a hug? Are you going to put your shoes on inside or when you get to school?” (And LET GO of the issue of cold feet. It won’t hurt him!) LISTEN.

Why is the child pushing-back so hard?

The behavior is code for, “I MATTER around here.” (Don’t treat me like luggage that needs to get moved around.) Getting routines set up and making room for kids to be involved with responsibilities in the morning can help kids get it that they matter. Kids can get out the breakfast cereal, they can help cook. They do best though when it is with you and you are connecting with them during the process. You can sing together, tell stories, make plans etc. This means that you have to be calm, collected and not in a rush.

What if a parent doesn’t follow your tips one morning, and they’re running late themselves, and the child is being extremely oppositional? Then what should this parent do?

Children are not “being oppositional.” They have behavior that is solving a problem for them and it looks defiant/disobedient or oppositional to us.

When a child has this kind of behavior he/she is discouraged. He/she is saying (through behavior – and it is not in conscious awareness), “In the moment, I don’t believe I matter to you, I don’t know how to connect with you in anyway except to really get in your way.”

What do you do?

You take a deep breath. Or three. Your child uses YOU to self regulate. He/she can’t do it if can’t do it. You calm yourself and imagine the child as they look when they are asleep in bed (angelic). YOU MUST calm yourself first.

You get down on his/her level. You say (with love in your eyes), “It has been a tough morning. I love you.” You listen for a minute (they may push/shove and you stay calm). Then you say, “You can walk to the car now or I can carry you. Which will it be?” Then you calmly proceed. (With toddlers sometimes you need to turn them away from you while you carry them or they will bite/hit scratch if they haven’t been able to calm down.)

If you have a tiny bit more time before you offer the choice another option is saying, “I need a hug.” Sometimes that will invite a kid to melt into you.

What if a parent follows all your tips, (has the child lay out their clothes, allows for gentle wake-up time, hugs, etc) and still the child is defiant and refuses to fall into line? Then what should a parent do?
It is not children’s job to “fall into line.” When we expect children to just obey they don’t feel respected or connected. They want/need to connect, to play and to engage with life. Sometimes the only way to engage with busy parents is to get in their way. And our non verbal language can betray us. We can’t “pretend” to not be in a hurry with a kid. They read our body language with exquisite sensitivity.
Are there some kids that aren’t morning people? If this is true, what are some things a parent can do to help the child embrace waking up and getting going?

Many kids aren’t morning people. That is why the routine chart helps. It gets the parent out of the picture more. There are lots of ways to help kids solve the “I’m not a morning person” problem. These ideas include: Breakfast first (some kids are just way low on blood sugar in the morning), an earlier more gradual wake up process, turning the light on 20 minutes before wake up time (using a timer not the parent!) to help get the pineal gland up, a lot of compassion and help with problem solving from the parents (chances are one of them remembers the challenge of not being a morning person too).

Regarding the choice a parent can give a child: “You can walk to the car now or I can carry you.” What if the child at 5 or 6 is too heavy or big to carry? Or what if the parent threw their back out, and can’t pick the child up? Is there another choice to give the child so s/he gets in the car to go? Or, perhaps another strategy you might offer?

Then the parent needs to recognize that inadvertently the power struggle they’ve mutually engaged in isn’t one that the parent can just “finish off” alone. One of the most powerful tools would be to ask for help.

As before. Breathe. Calm yourself. Get down on the child’s level.

Calmly say something like. “We’ve had a tough morning. I’m guessing it’s hard to know right now how much I love you.” (Pause). “I’ve got a big problem and I need your help. I am going to be late to work and you are going to be late to school if we don’t get in the car. How can we do it together? Do you want to do it barefoot or with your shoes on? Do you want to carry my bag – and I can carry yours? How can we make it work for both of us?”

Is there anything you’d like to add?

  • Taking care of yourself first is important. If you aren’t calm cool and collected so you can connect in the morning – your children can’t self regulate either. Their brains are learning from yours (non-verbally)
  • Lots of morning problems can be solved with a little bit of work in the evening. Kids can put their lunches together. They can lay out their clothes (often on the floor in the shape of a person).
  • Have faith in their ability to do a lot for themselves. Sometimes we forget how capable our children are – and then they do too. One way to help is to become a little incapable. I’ll never forget the time I suddenly “became incompetent” to help get one my children dressed at age 4. Of course I new he could do it. Of course he loved the morning ritual and connection (which wasn’t all that pleasant). At the recommendation of a parenting educator one morning I did it ALL wrong. He got disgusted with me and did it by himself from then on.

I think seeing the world through the child’s eyes is my biggest take-a-way from our interview.

Bingo! It is really really hard. And the rewards are huge. The key is not being permissive as you do it. It is not our job to make them happy – but it is our job to treat them as full human beings.

Parenting is tough tough tough. Our challenge is not to label or blame the kids. We can only change the dance by changing our own rhythm and dance steps. In parenting classes many parents are very surprised by how what seem like small parenting changes can make a huge difference. To make it work though, we have to have faith in our kids. Like us they are doing the best they can in the moment.


This article was originally published August 7, 2014

Jody McVittie, MD worked in family medicine, before returning to the Northwest and shifting her focus to broader community issues that impact health outcomes including parenting, education, trauma and the impact of intra-family violence. She is the co-founder and currently executive director of Sound Discipline. Sound Discipline works with local schools, educators, youth outreach programs and parenting educators to teach the tools we can all use to foster dignity, respect and equity in our communities.
The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out Ruby’s Studio.” We want to be a parenting tool…  For you!  
Feelings Gift Set
Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, Modern Parenting