When a Child Can’t Get Her Act Together in the Morning

In this episode: A mom is frustrated that her 4-year-old daughter has suddenly decided she’s helpless in the mornings, pretending to be overwhelmed and confused by the most basic tasks. This mom is expecting a new baby and is going to need her daughter’s cooperation when the child arrives.

Transcript of “When a Child Can’t Get Her Act Together in the Morning”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. In this episode, I’m replying to a mom who left a comment on one of my articles on my website. It’s called, “When Children Can’t Do It (How to Help).” And she asked about her four-year-old who’s been pretending to be confused and helpless when it’s time to leave for preschool in the morning. And this mom is wondering how to respond.

“My daughter Juliet has just turned four. She is, on the whole, very helpful and caring, and, generally, as independent as you would expect for her age, I think. However, some mornings, she seems to wake up with a bee in her bonnet, for lack of a better term. Everything seems to be wrong and too hard. This morning, for example, she decided she couldn’t dress herself. When I asked her to go to the toilet before leaving for preschool, she laid down on the floor and told me she didn’t know where the toilet is. Sometimes, she suddenly forgets how to sit on the toilet. Her backpack is too heavy. She can’t remember how to sit on a dining chair. She can’t see her lunchbox (it’s right in front of her) or put it in her backpack, etc. etc. All of the things I ask her are well within her capabilities and simple requests.

Are you suggesting in this article that I’m best to just dress her, put the lunchbox in, etc. myself? I am expecting my third baby in about eight weeks, and while maybe this behavior is partly due to starting preschool in the last couple of months, and a new baby coming, I can’t help but think I will need her to do these things, as I will have a new baby to look after, as well. I’m just lost on the best way to respond. Both of my actions and what to say to her. Any help much appreciated.”

Well, first of all, I have to say that I love this girl. She’s got a flair for the dramatic, and she reminds me how wonderful young children are. I get such a big kick out of them. And that’s why when I’m doing these podcasts, a couple of people have given me feedback that it sounds like maybe I’m laughing at the parents or being condescending or not taking the parents’ questions seriously. That’s not how I feel at all. I get such a kick out of children, and I would love for parents to see them with the lightheartedness that I see them. I know it’s hard all the time. Sometimes the issues we have with them seem so serious and depressing and difficult, but in the end of the day, these are all really kind of light, small details. Most of the parents that are out there reading articles and researching parenting and listening to podcasts are the best of the bunch. I mean, these aren’t parents with serious issues. My interest is in lightening up this whole process and sharing my appreciation of children and these wonderful foibles they have. Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from.

So, to this mother’s issues. This girl is doing these really kind of funny, obvious things. Having difficulty getting out of the house in the morning. She’s in this big transition with her mother expecting another baby. It’s this mysterious time of life for children. I mean, it’s mysterious enough for us, but imagine how mysterious it is for them to sense this big, impending change, and they really don’t know exactly how it’s going to feel, what it’s going to look like, and it’s disconcerting. So this is a time that typically there’s behaviors like these, resistant behaviors, defiant behaviors, putting my foot down, expressing my displeasure and dissatisfaction with things and really underneath all of that, if you could take all of those layers away, there would be a scared little girl. And yes, they do wake up on the wrong side of the bed, as we all do.

So this mother says that this morning she decided she couldn’t dress herself. I would try to anticipate that these transitional times are going to be a little bit rough and that she’s going to need some physical nurturing, which means that you set the time aside and you have this expectation in yourself that you’re going to be needing to help her get dressed and baby her a little bit. If you expect this, then it’s going to be easier for you to come into it with a light attitude and not with annoyance with her or something that will actually fuel this behavior, give it power that you don’t want to give it.

So if she says, “I can’t dress myself,” I would say, “That makes sense. Sometimes that happens to all of us, and here I come. I’m gonna help you. Let’s get these shoes and get your pants on and can you jump your legs in here and do this,” and just walk her through it.

I would give that little bit of time. But mostly, it’s about our attitude of accepting, accepting that this is just where she is today. She does have a bee in her bonnet. Who knows why exactly? but probably these reasons I mention. We don’t need to know. It’s just, okay, you’re having a rough one this morning. I’m here to help you out as much as I can.

Now, if you really can’t in that moment, I would say, “Oh, wow, you need me to dress you. I’d love to do that. I’ve got to do this. Can you get started a little bit and then I’d be happy to come in and do the rest.” Having a willing attitude.

And then she asked her to go to the toilet before leaving for preschool, and “she laid down on the floor and told me she didn’t know where the toilet is.” Rather than being shocked by that or questioning that, just take it in stride.

“Let me help you out with that. It’s right over here. Let me pick you up and I’m going to escort you to this potty, because I know sometimes it’s hard to just see in the morning and everything’s blurry and I feel like that before I have coffee sometimes, so I’m gonna help you over here to this potty. Wow, you didn’t notice it today. You couldn’t see it. Interesting.” Just accepting where she’s at, not making a big to-do of it, letting it be. Just moving her through it.

And then sometimes she suddenly forgets how to sit on the toilet. So she may need help with that, too. “Wow, you’ve forgotten this. That’s so interesting. I think you put your bottom here in this part, and this is what I think you do.”

These details, what you say, of course, doesn’t really matter. It’s just this attitude of, okay, this is what I’ve got today. This is where she’s at. This is what she’s giving me. And it’s nothing you can’t handle. You’ve gotta know that, because that’s the key to coming in with this efficient, calm, unruffled attitude that she needs, with love.

And her backpack is too heavy. “Oh, gosh, it’s so heavy for you today. This is so hard. Maybe there’s another way we can carry this, but, gosh.”

So not questioning her, not arguing with her about it. Accepting that she’s carrying the weight of the world in her backpack at that moment. It’s all symbolic of these bigger issues that she’s facing. This big start to a new school, that’s a huge deal. Having to get used to new teachers and a new rhythm for your day, and new people and maybe a new classroom, and it’s a lot.

I wouldn’t expect her to just have a seamless transition and glide into this, especially with the other added mystery of the baby coming. I would expect this kind of, ah, it’s all too much. I’m overwhelmed by everything, and I can’t see, and I can’t do, and everything’s too heavy, and I can certainly relate to this.

And children are just so open about these things. They put it right out there. That’s what I love about working with them. That’s why I love trying to help parents with children this age, because it’s easier. It’s all out there. We don’t have to try to figure out what’s going on deep inside. It’s all pretty evident and obvious. She’s falling apart, and she’s showing you that in all these different ways. I can’t see, I can’t remember, I can do anything. That’s clear, and she just needs your help and your acceptance of this, and your understanding.

So then she can’t see her lunchbox. It’s right in front of her. Well, you can help her with that.

“Yes, oh, I think it’s right here. Okay. Let me open your hand and let me put this in your hand.”

So this doesn’t really take a lot of time, it just takes an attitude. It takes that expectation that this could well be your morning and your pickup from school and your getting ready for bed at night and other transitions, and that this is to be expected, and you’re going to save your energy to be able to come in confidently to these experiences.

You’re not going to be thrown off balance when she’s acting kooky, because she is feeling kooky right now. It’s all normal stuff. It’s nothing that you’ve gotta try to harness her into understanding and figuring out and that she’s on the wrong track here. She’s right where she’s supposed to be.

And she says, “All of the things I ask her are well within her capabilities and simple requests.” That’s right, and there’s a reason that she’s feeling unable to do these things. It’s this situation she’s in, and the way she woke up that morning with all these feelings, and if we can just help her through this and get her there, get her to that school, she’s gonna be fine. But I wouldn’t be thrown off by this. I wouldn’t be angry at her for just being where she’s at.

So she asks am I suggesting in the article that it’s best to just dress her and put the lunchbox in, etc., herself? Yes. But ideally, you’ll give a little bit of time for the dressing, anticipating that that might happen. So however you can schedule your morning to give a better time for that would be great. And then not just dress her like she’s a ragdoll, but really work with her. Don’t let her be distracted doing something else when you’re getting dressed together. Embrace this as what Magda Gerber called “wants something quality time,” a caregiving routine kind of quality time where you’re not gonna be distracted for those couple of minutes it takes to help her get dressed. That you’re going to use this as a time of connection, just for five minutes or however long it takes, you’re going to be there fully present with her, and you’re going to expect her to be fully present with you. So you’re not going to let her zone off playing with a toy or something. You’re going to put those things away and say, “Okay, help me, here. I can’t do this alone. Can you put your foot in here?” And you’re going to walk her through it, join her in this experience. And that will be a very nurturing way for her to start her morning.

I think that’s one thing that we miss a lot in these mornings with children is just that little moment, whether it’s sitting while they’re having breakfast, not having your phone there and not thinking about all these other things you need to do and what you’re gonna do today, but just being available to her. If you can do that while she’s eating and do it again while she’s getting dressed, that’s going to fill her up. The reassurance of that nurturing from you. And it will fuel her for her day.

It seems that she’s letting you know that she needs that, so I would embrace it. I would take your moment here and know that in a few weeks, it’s gonna be harder. You probably won’t be able to do a lot of these things. Maybe you’ll be able to do one of them. Maybe you’ll be able to sit with her while she’s eating, and have five minutes there, but it’s going to be harder.

So I would actually take advantage of this time before the next baby comes, time when you can fill her up with your attention for just a few moments. Giving 100% of attention for just a few minutes can carry children the whole day.

But I think oftentimes, we get used to giving just half attention, and then children never feel really seen and filled up. So take your moments, and rise to those occasions as much as you can. Not putting pressure on yourself, but just prioritizing that.

Then this mother says, “I can’t help but think I will need her to do these things as I will have a new baby to look after, as well.”

Yes, you will. So when you can’t help her, then be really clear when that baby comes and you can’t help her. But try to find a time either in the morning or at the end of the day when you can be fully present with her. When you can’t, be honest and be clear. Don’t be resentful of her for asking for that attention. Don’t be annoyed that she asked. Just say honestly, “Wow, I would so love to do that. I can’t. I will have some time with you at the end of the day. I’m going to be the one that picks you up today,” or whatever it is.

And see if you can set some time aside, maybe once a week, where you’re just with her. And just with your other child, so that you can let those children know that you want to keep nurturing that relationship, that you see how important it is.  It may take you some time if you’re breastfeeding and you’re getting in the rhythm and trying to find a rhythm with your baby. It’s gonna take a little while, but just have that in your plan for what you’re working towards, and try to make it happen.

Know that those moments matter, when you can be fully there with one of them, and those caregiving routines, that’s the most important time. Caregiving routines being your meals, and dressing, and a bath, and a diaper change for a younger child, and putting on the bandaid, and brushing hair, helping them get to bed. All of those things, those are the magic moments to try to grasp and be there for as much as you can.

I hope that helps.

Also, both of my books are available on audio at Audible. No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I struggle with how to maintain that non- judgemental “hmm interesting” attitude. My daughter now 3 1/2 is so creative! Mama don’t drink your coffee, I want you to hold my hand, I’m a doggie and doggies don’t wear pants, I’m a baby and I need you to pick me up. Sometimes it’s so rapid fire I don’t have a moment to get composed! I wonder does giving structure to their routine help with these transitions?

    I used to sleep until my daughter woke up but realized it set me too far behind to keep up with her. Now I’m up and ready to go when she wakes up, it helps. We always eat breakfast in our pajamas and then get dressed. If we’ve ever tried to do anything else we couldn’t get out the door. I didn’t plan that but I wonder if setting up routine helps me give her the attention and helps her accept the transition?

  2. Amelia Eulenstein says:

    Is it the same approach for an older child? My daughter is 7 and we still have prolonged periods of this type of behaviour. Although, I don’t think she is pretending – she seems to get so far inside her head, she genuinely can’t ‘see the wood for the trees’. It’s really challenging – and I don’t think we are being the parents she needs right now. I just can’t figure out what that is.

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