Getting Dressed Is a Daily Struggle

In this episode: Janet answers an email from a parent whose 3-year-old is having difficulty with transitions, especially getting dressed in the morning for pre-school. She’s tried several different approaches, but without success, and every morning ends in a struggle. She writes: “I feel like we are stuck in this weekday morning drama and don’t know what to do differently. Please help!”

Transcript of “Getting Dressed Is a Daily Struggle”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled.

Today, I’m going to be responding to a parent’s question about her daughter, who is three years old and having trouble with transitions, especially getting dressed and getting out the door in the morning. And this mother’s tried several approaches, and nothing seems to be working.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi, Janet. I have a strong-willed, sensitive, and shy three year old daughter, who’s having trouble with transitions. The biggest being in the morning. Every morning we have breakfast together before she gets dressed for preschool. After finishing breakfast, she runs to the couch and plays under the blankets, even though we have talked about the next step of the morning, getting dressed. I’ve tried different approaches, such as removing the blankets from the couch, waiting for her to get dressed herself, getting dressed before breakfast, and even offering to read a book if she helps get dressed. But nothing results in her willingness to want to get dressed. She tells me she wants to stay in PJ’s, to which I reply that I wish I could stay in PJ’s too, and that it’s time to get dressed for school.

I know she needs my help to get dressed in this situation, but every morning ends up being a struggle to get her dressed, with her crying and screaming, and trying to take off the clothes that I’m putting on. I feel like we’re stuck in this weekday morning drama, and I don’t know what to do differently. Please help.”

Okay, so first of all, it’s very typical for toddlers and all young children to have difficulty with transitions, and I think this is probably something we can all relate to. As this mother even said to her daughter, she wishes she could stay in PJ’s too. Well, I wish I could stay in PJ’s, and I often do, because my work actually is … A lot of it is writing and being at home, and I actually can stay in PJ’s most of the day.

But getting out somewhere, getting ourselves together, even if it’s somewhere that we want to go, is for some of us difficult. It’s just, ugh, I don’t know, I just want to be doing what I’m doing, and I don’t want to have to stop this and go through the whole thing of getting dressed, even if this is something I’m really looking forward to.

It’s tough to get over that hump, even for somewhat mature people like me. Knowing that, what I’m seeing here, or what I’m reading, or what I’m imagining in this note, is that this mother’s starting out as, “Oh gosh, here’s this task I have to do. How can I get this done? How can I get her to comply? How can I get this to work?”

I could be wrong on this, but that’s what I’m feeling when she talks about the different approaches. She tried making it impossible for her to use the blankets that she was playing with. She tried just waiting. These are all, in a sense, tactics to try to get someone else to do something you want them to do.

But what actually works with children, and is probably particularly important with strong willed children, is to really approach the whole situation differently, to approach it from a place of real respect and connection, as two people, so that it’s not me trying to get this other person to do something, and let me try all these things to make that happen. It’s me realizing that we have this task to do together, we have to get out of the house, and my daughter’s showing me right now that for whatever reason, she needs me to really join and help her through this. She can’t do it on her own.

Sometimes this is a reflection of other transitions that a child is also facing. I don’t know if there are any other changes going on in this parent’s life. That could exacerbate this issue, and make it even tougher, because the more transitions children have piled on to their plates, the harder it is to release the brakes that they have around these situations.

So, I don’t know all the possibilities, and the reasons this could be happening. It could simply be that this is a separation time from her mother. They’re getting ready to separate, and she’s getting ready to go off to school, which is a big deal for children. It’s something they really do have to step up to. It’s a challenge, not just something they can roll out of bed into and not have to get themselves ready physically, emotionally, mentally.

The wonderful thing about the RIE approach, Magda Gerber’s approach, the one that I speak from, is that it’s really about a relationship, and the way that we treat our child moment to moment. It seems to me that in this note there might be more room for this mother to really join her daughter here. I’m going to talk about what that would look like, but it will look a little different for this mother than it would for me, or with another child, or somebody else.

So, whenever I give suggestions about things to say, or what to actually do, they’re just examples. They’re not really the gist of it. The gist of it has to be: here’s my daughter, she’s having a hard time with this, and I’m really here to help. I’m going to set up my morning so that I have time to help her.

It doesn’t really take a lot more time, though it does take slowing down our adult pace to a child’s pace, which is naturally a lot slower. It’s an attitude of joining, rather than pitting ourselves against our child, and making this into a contest of wills that, again, is very easy to slip into with a strong willed child. They’re always ready to go there.

So, here’s how I could see this going. First of all, again, it’s the overall attitude that I have going into this. We wake up, I’m going to set out some time together with my child where I’m stopping everything to sit with her while she eats. It sounds like this mother is doing that, “We have breakfast together before she gets dressed for preschool.”

Then, after breakfast, “Okay, now we’ve got to get dressed for preschool.” But before I’ve even said that, she ran off to play under the blankets. She’s saying: I’m going to avoid this. I don’t want to go get dressed for preschool right now. I’m going to get away from you, because you’re trying to make me do this, and I don’t want to do this. I’m going to go there.

So, rather than feeling deflated, or angry, or annoyed, or trying to move blankets and things so that these kinds of things are impossible for her to do, I would go right over there. I mean not running over, but clean up the breakfast dishes, whatever, la la la… Then walk over to where she is. “Oh, there’s my little girl, very interesting, you decided you want to play. Of course, you want to play, I totally get that. I’m going to be in your room with your clothes, and please come in when you want to get dressed, I’m going to be in there.”

That’s one way it could go. That works because, again, it’s very polite, it’s very respectful, it’s giving your child the chance to be the one to make the choice. It’s treating your child with that same respect we would give to another adult.

So, right away I would use that as an opportunity to join her, instead of uh-oh my plan isn’t working. She’s doing a really obvious thing, she’s doing a thing children often do. It’s kind of funny. Don’t let that intimidate. See that little rascal for what she is there, and stay connected.

So then, let’s say you go into a room, you’re waiting, maybe you’re getting something else done that you need to do to get ready while she’s doing that, while you’re waiting for her. But it shouldn’t take long. Children do come, when they feel that we’re not in a contest with them, that we’re not in a power struggle with them.

If this is a new way of being with your child that you haven’t been doing, then it may take more of this for her to be able to come to you. So let’s say that she doesn’t, she doesn’t come. You’ve left a minute or two for her to come, and now it’s really time. So you go over, “Oh, there’s my little darling. Come here, we really have to do this, come on, let’s go.” You’re still being respectful, you’re being kind, you’re being with her. You’re not mad at her for doing normal, normal things that children do.

There’s nothing to be annoyed with here if you have that expectation in line. If you have that perception of who she is, and what’s going on, you don’t fall into the trap of engaging in a power struggle.

This mother says that she tried different approaches, such as removing the blankets from the couch, waiting for her to get dressed herself, getting dressed before breakfast, and even offering to read a book if she helps get dressed.

So, you could decide to get dressed before breakfast, if that works for you. But again, not as a strategy. I would do it, if it works for you, for your routine, but don’t do it as a way to try to avoid having to need to do this extra connecting with her. She wants to feel like you’re on the same team and I think, especially, because you two are going to go your separate ways for the rest of the day, or for several hours.

Being on someone’s team doesn’t mean that they’re not a little frustrated with you and not wanting to get dressed. It doesn’t mean that at all. She needs to be welcome to have that reaction. It means that you are still in relationship with her, as two people, throughout the struggle.

So, now let’s say that she didn’t come, and she’s over there still playing. I would go, pick her up right away, but it’s got to be lovingly, it’s got to be happily, not waiting and waiting because she didn’t do what you wanted her to do and now you’re going to go pick her up angrily, or with impatience, or frustration.

She just needs a little help, that’s all. She may be needing or wanting that physical connection with you. So see it that way. “Oh, alright, I’m going to carry you in. You’re really having a hard time today.”

You take her in her room, and then I would still offer her some autonomy there. “Okay, what do you want wear today? What are you going to wear? Of these two options,” or whatever.

And then, if she says, “No, I want to wear my PJ’s,” it’s fine to say … As this mother says, “I replied that I wish to stay in PJ’s too.” It’s fine to do that, it’s fine to join her there. But it sounds like the way this mother wrote this, that she’s kind of going through the motions to say that she wishes she could stay in PJ’s, too. Or that she’s saying that out of, “Well I wish that too, but we have to go,” which isn’t the same as joining with your child and empathizing.

Again, I could be reading this differently, but it’s feeling like she’s using this as another approach, instead of “Yep, I really know, I really get that. Ugh! It’s so hard to get out of those PJ’s in the morning. I know the feeling, I really, really do.”

I don’t think you need to say, “But we have to get dressed for school.”

That is already implicit, she already knows that. She’s known that since before breakfast, when she was getting ready to, after breakfast, run way. So that’s not something she needs to hear again.

I think the reason we say those things, again, as parents is because we’re trying to get our child to just agree with our agenda, rather than really meeting the where they are, and helping them to get through it.

It may not sound that different in the actual words you say even, but it’s a whole different feeling that it gives a child. It’s a feeling that you’re not against them, that you do get them, that you’re not impatient with them or angry with them in any way, that they’re not disappointing you. And again, that will all stem from the way that we view this, the expectations that we have, the tone that we set.

And ideally, this will be in all our interactions with our children. Even when we do get frustrated, we’re getting frustrated from a place of honesty and sharing, really. And then we’re going to repair. Afterwards we’re going to say, “Uh, yeah, all these things were piling up, and I really needed to do that and you couldn’t, and you needed help from me I know. And I just couldn’t do it, and I did give it enough time, and so I lost my temper.”

So then this mother says that she does recognize, she says, “I know she needs my help to get dressed in this situation, but every morning ends up being a struggle to get her dressed her crying, and screaming, and trying to take off the clothes that I’m putting on.”

Yes. So I feel like that must be a result, a common result of all the tension that she’s feeling, from this mother, which again, I can only imagine, in the way that she’s shared this. And I could be way wrong, and I hope if I am, she writes, or contacts me, and lets me know.

But that’s the feeling I’m getting, that there’s tension all the way through this. From the beginning there was maybe even a little dread in this mother about this thing that she was going to have to get her child do that’s always a struggle. And she’s tried everything, and nothing’s working. That is, I feel, why this girl is then reflecting back all that tension by crying and screaming and having this big meltdown around it.

Sometimes children do that for other reasons: the parent’s been away, or there’s a new baby coming, or there’s another thing that’s creating stress, and then that’s where the child shares it. So, even the crying and screaming is a positive thing, it’s actually … Instead of, oh gosh, she’s making this hard for me, I would see that as, wow, this gave her an opportunity to vent. That I had to insist, “Now we’ve got to put those shoes on, we’ve really got to get these on so we can get out of here. I know you don’t want to. I hear you.”

If that kind of loving, connected approach creates crying and screaming, then there is a really good reason for the crying and screaming, that we need to trust, ideally.

So, I wish this was just a simple answer, like just do this and it’ll all work. That would be easier than wrapping our heads around these ideas of really respecting our child, and joining with them, connecting, being on their side, on their team. And having our expectations in order.

This takes some thought, and maybe takes some visualization, seeing it all differently, seeing her “annoying” behavior differently. So I hope that makes sense, and I really hope it helps.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, 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.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

UPDATE: Heather, the mom who had sent me this question, shared an update:

“I am following up from my recent email and your response (5/2/18 post) regarding dressing my 3 year old and I wanted to share our success story. After I emailed you last month, I looked at my own behavior and realized that I was coming off tense and annoyed with my daughter in the morning when she avoids getting dressed for preschool. I decided that I was going to give extra time, give more hugs and come from a place of humor in getting dressed in the morning. I started by calling her toes “hotdogs” and told her I was going to eat them up while I dressed her which she found funny and gave us both a laugh. It took a few days but things have turned around, she dressed herself today and we are leaving the house early (and happy) now that we are not in a struggle! After going through this, I now know that my temperament impacts her greatly and that if I can remain unruffled, its a win-win for us both. And after reading your post today, I realize that she knew our separation time was coming and was probably the reason why she avoided getting dressed – all the more reason to connect with her!

Thank you so much for your guidance! I am one appreciative momma!”

(Thank you, Heather!)

9 Comments

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

  1. just an idea-
    Could the mom put the kid to sleep in clothes she could also wear to school? maybe some comfy leggings and a dress? Maybe removing this struggle from the morning could allow for more time to connect about missing each other before separating for the day?

  2. avatar Gail Kerr says:

    I am the grandmother of a beautiful one year old boy, and I am about to start looking after him 3 days a week while my daughter-in-law, with whom I have an excellent relationship, goes (unwillingly) back to work. It’s a VERY long time since I had a one year old, so I am feeling very nervous and unsure of myself! He has barely left his mother’s side since birth – still co-sleeps and still breast fed – so this will be a HUGE transition for him. Naturally I want to make this as easy for him as possible, and as stress-free for both of us as it can be. I would be very grateful if you could point me towards any of your articles or podcasts which may help. A young friend of mine who is bringing up her darling little girl (now two years old and the most delightful child you can imagine) using your methods has recommended your site to me, and so far it all makes wonderful sense. I’m hoping I can remember put it into practice at the crucial moment!
    Kind regards,
    Gail

    1. Thank you for reaching out to me, Gail! I’m honored. It will all come back to you, I’m sure. Mostly, my advice is to be unafraid of any feelings he shares with you and to allow and accept them. There are a zillion articles and podcasts on this site around that topic. Here’s a podcast that may be pertinent:https://www.janetlansbury.com/2018/01/helping-child-adjust-two-households-changes-care/ Also, this article comes to mind:https://www.janetlansbury.com/2009/09/good-grief/ And as I said, there are many, many more depending on your specific concerns. You are welcome to check back with me with concerns as you go.
      Warmly,
      Janet

  3. avatar Megan Sullivan says:

    Thank you for this article, Janet. It has given me plenty to reflect on regarding my approach to my 3.5-year-old’s bedtime, which has become a tense affair. One of the reasons it has become “a thing” is that I get worked up when the 3.5’s actions (in and out of the room many times) wake up our 1-yr-old who shares their bedroom. The 1-yr-old cries, I get frustrated, and often remove the older boy from the room to talk and try to connect with him. Another detail: the 3.5-year-old is hard off hearing and his hearing aids are out for bedtime, so we need to be close and speak rather loudly for us to be confident he hears us. Our house is very small and the boys’ bedroom is the only room with a door besides the bathroom, so splitting the kids into separate sleeping areas doesn’t seem feasible. I guess I would love hearing from anybody their thoughts on handling bedtime curtain call antics that awaken the sibling ….

  4. Bedtime can be tough and it’s hard with a younger sibling that is at risk of waking. My anxiety has gone down immensely around bedtime, because I have worked on understanding my daughter needs to unload at bedtime, so that is the biggest priority for me: connecting with her.

    This evening she was bouncing wild in the bed: her signal to me that she is nervous or scared or troubled about something that happened earlier (she’s four). I calmly ask, Are you nervous? She has become much faster at admitting what is the problem, since it has become a trusted routine where I am able to calm the situation. Tonight, she admitted she was afraid of the teeth on a plastic bull dog she received yesterday. I let her go back downstairs for markers so I could color them in and make a smile.

    I lie with her in bed, rather than the routine of telling her to get back to bed. Janet has posts about how to calmly and silently bring the child back to bed. I would look for those, if you want advice there.

    Also, my daughter is jealous of the dogs attention from me. Tonight I literally told one of the dogs, while reading books at bedtime: Yes, I love you, but I love my daughter more. She is my favorite. She sees the dogs as siblings and there is intense rivalry. I am actually now reading articles here on sibling rivalry after writing here: I thought I was modeling how to treat animals kindly, but discovered my daughter saw it differently.

    Your son probably loves the one on one attention he is getting from you at bedtime. There are articles here for you on having a sibling, as well. Of course, you can’t say he is your favorite, but I used to say to nephews: You are my favorite, his name. I tell my daughter at various times, for no reason, I really like you. Or, I am so glad you were born. I just say it as we are coloring or what have you, because it feels good to know this about ourselves.

    Your son is acting appropriately: parenting is hard, but Janet is so spot on when it comes to guiding you through your own triggers. I no longer dread bedtime, because of my study here and changing my own point of view. I am on my daughter’s side and it feels great. Good Luck!

  5. Sooo sad that canvas isn,t mailing to europe!!!!! :((((

  6. Hi Janet,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, and today found this topic particularly relevant. 🙂 My question is this: What if, when you go to lovingly pick up your child who, after you’ve waited several minutes and reminded them that you, as a team, need to get dressed for school, your child begins to scream and kick and not let you physically re-direct them? Even if I pick up my child in a loving way and calmly say, “It’s time to get dressed now. You need my help, and I’m here to help you”, he will become angry and physically impossible for me to dress. I don’t want to physically force the matter there because 1) He’s strong, and I’m in my third trimester of pregnancy and 2) It seems to escalate him more. Please help!

  7. Same Problem here but with every transition not just in the morning and not just getting changed. Starts with nappy/undies, getting dressed, washing hands, walking down the stairs, sitting at the table to eat, getting in the car etc etc etc. I feel like everything is a challenge and am sure my attitude isn’t helping but as the day unfolds I inevitably loose my patience. My husband and I are not morning people either (and it appears our child is not either) so it’s hard for us to be motivated and enthusiastic when the first power struggle starts…then as the day unfolds I loose my patience from the build up of struggles until it amplifies at bed time.

  8. avatar Juliana Camelo says:

    Everything is calm with my two year old except getting dressed. I have always been a believer of being respectful to her, and empathizing and taking with each other through what is going on and what is to come. I think I’m good at this . But when it comes to putting on those clothes it’s always a no these days. I think I’ve got the idea of not being tense down, though I’m sure some tension exudes at times. But I really think my toddler is experiencing other things that make the getting dressed a bad time, like you said, I. E. Clothes means we might be about to separate, she and I have both never been at full peace that I’m a working mom. Also she just started a new two year old class ( it’s going great, but still a change). These are just my thoughts about what I think is happening. It’s a god send that I came across this article today. So my solution to some of the days when I just want no one to be upset or tense is to just let the kid watch a movie. And she is perfectly still while I change her and she’s watching the movie. Would I love to be a perfect household w one hour of screen time? Duh but it’s not! And we got dressed this am quickly without a tear or so much as a raised heart beat. What do you think of this? A crutch? Also she won’t let me do her hair. She looks like a hot mess w a fro most days. This morning. I offered her m&ms in exchange for me doing her hair. And she let me and it was beautiful. And I’ll probably bribe her again tomorrow too. No shame here, but tell me, what do you think? Are these crutches? Can’t we just do what makes it easier on us all?

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