Here’s the catch: I didn’t. Nor did my husband.
She was the one that decided to change. Eventually. However, it was by putting our own baggage aside and supporting her properly that we helped her.
In the middle of winter my almost 4 year old had a growth spurt and decided her knickers were ‘uncomfortable’. And socks. And trousers. And a lot of her leggings. She didn’t like mornings, we were about to move house and her baby sister was about to arrive. Mornings were frantic and pressured, stressed out by her difficult behaviour, my husband and I were usually exhausted even before we set off for work.
It was a catch 22, a self fulfilling prophecy – she didn’t like getting dressed and her delays made my husband and I all the more stressed, making her hate mornings all the more.
Even after we moved and the baby had arrived, to which our darling 4 year old was devoted, and things calmed down, it was still tricky. Getting dressed resulted in an all out battle of wills with bribery being the only way to have any chance of a smooth morning. The slightest thing could trigger fierce tears and a response that was more appropriate for the end of the world rather than an uncomfortable pair of knickers.
I had a lovely conversation with a friend who said that their daughter had been the same at her age. It was nice to know we weren’t alone but it didn’t give us a solution. Then I received a recommendation, a book by Dr Laura Markham called Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. This was by no means a silver bullet. It just gave me and my husband a different angle. I thought I’d share it, if there is anyone out there with similar problems.
The bit I found most useful was the section on emotional intelligence. This example of ‘problem behaviour’ was a hiccup in us being able to raise an emotionally intelligent child. Our own baggage had got in the way and we couldn’t seem to shed it. Before seeing the book, I suspected that we had created the problem, or contributed to it, but it now was clear what was happening, and understanding is sometimes the first part of the solution. She had never been a fast mover, naturally she would prefer to be at home with us rather than go to nursery and us hurrying her and bringing our own stress to the situation had resulted in an ‘issue’.
Fostering emotional intelligence
Peaceful Parenting covers how to regulate yourself and foster connection (both section titles) but the really helpful bit about ’emotion coaching’ talks about teaching them how acknowledge and understand their own emotions so they aren’t ‘hijacked’ by these emotions. It has seven steps to nurture emotional intelligence (p.128) and I have a book mark on that page:
- Acknowledge your child’s perspective and empathise.
- Allow expression of emotion, even while limiting actions.
- Respond to the needs and feelings behind problem behaviour.
- When a desire can’t be granted, acknowledge it and grant it through “wish fulfillment” i.e. via imagination
- Tell the story so your child understands his emotional experience.
- Teach problem solving i.e. show them that they can have ideas of ways to dissipate emotional feelings.
- Play it out.
Neat. So to apply the above points to our issue, I can show you how it worked for us.
Coaching not coaxing
- The empathy is important to build a connection and engage her in the morning. We used to let her watch tv and try and stealth dress her but actually that isn’t helpful because she isn’t engaged and happy, she’s just distracted. Also talking to her in terms that show our empathy for her situation really helped e.g. “I realise that your xxx is uncomfortable, it’s OK, let’s take it off and we’ll pick something else.” My husband is really good at this. There had been a couple of times where I’d just said things like, “No, don’t you dare take it off. I can’t believe you’re doing this” etc etc. The empathy really helped undo this belief in our heads that she was doing it on purpose, and helped build her trust in us again. This was really the most important starting point for us, but the other points above also help because that certainly wasn’t the end of the story, she still has difficult days now.
- If she starts getting upset, we name it and help her see there’s a better way to express that feeling. “I can see you’re upset, why don’t you come and sit with me for a while and have a hug and we can talk about it instead.”
- Instead of scolding her, we try to address her feelings around getting dressed. e.g. “You’re having a hard time this morning and I know you want to be with Mummy/Daddy but nursery is fun and when we pick you up we’ll play together then. What would you like to play when you get home?”
- Getting her imagination going is also useful and can help lighten the mood, a smile or giggle can get her back on side. To be honest this one is harder with getting dressed, it is easier for other things or to focus on something in the periphery e.g. You wish you had more comfortable xxx, well next time we go shopping why don’t we buy some more, won’t that be nice.”
- Telling stories is one we used a lot both during the morning and afterwards. An example of a morning story would be something like, “Yesterday you wore xxx and when we got to nursery, your nursery carer said you looked so smart.” or (and this shows how far we have stooped) “Do you remember when you had to get dressed in the (open) boot of the car (in December!), it was cold wasn’t it, your clothes will help to keep you warm.
- This one is a good one for bonding together. e.g. “OK, I know you’re upset that your clothes are uncomfortable, let’s think about what we should do, do you have any ideas?”
- Play it out. I’ve tried races and competitions but nothing has worked more than once or twice, but I’ll take that! The other thing is to offer a certain amount of play time and then a goal of getting dressed, or even just one item of clothing. We would put on the timer for a time agreed with her and then she can play and then get dressed. She came up with the ‘play-dress-play-dress’ idea herself.
We found that we really have to leave plenty of time. Not just for her to get around to getting dressed but for us to feel more relaxed so we weren’t up against the clock. We leave 1 1/2 hrs – 2 hrs for her (and us) to get ready in the morning now. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we have completely done away with dressing being a problem but it’s one that we all can manage better now.