How hard we all work to get our kids out the door on time! I think just about every parent I’ve listened to has struggled, at one time or another, with getting their children to school or daycare. There seems to be so much to do: get up, get dressed, make breakfast, eat breakfast, brush teeth, make packed lunches, pack bags etc.
I’m continually amazed at the ideas and strategies parents put into this part of the day. But no matter how organised we are, children still have feelings. They have lots and lots of feelings about school or daycare (even if they love it) and they have plenty of feelings about having to get out the door on time. So it makes sense that our morning routine pays as much attention to their emotions as it does to their physical needs and logistics.
A good starting point is to notice that when children are feeling close and connected they are delightful to be with. They are cooperative, helpful and obliging. On those mornings we might even be ready before we need to be. But when children lack this sense of connection, or when they harbour upsets, they lose their ability think well and find it hard to get ready on time. There’s a scientific name for this: “inhibited cortical functioning”. It means we can’t use our rational brains anymore. Our emotional brain is running the show and when that happens, blood flow to the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) is restricted. Kids don’t want to be awkward and stubborn, but with feelings popping up, it’s hard for them to think clearly and do the morning routine.
Here are some tried and tested strategies to help children feel connected and release any emotional tension that’s in the way.
The Morning Snuggle
This is such a nurturing way to begin the day. Snuggling together in bed eases away tension. It’s a beautiful chance to soak up each others’ warmth and reconnect after a night of sleep. If your kids don’t get into your bed anymore, get into theirs. If they complain, turn it into a game, “Oh but I’ve got 100 hugs and kisses all for you” and let them scream and laugh, and run away as you chase them with your cuddles, occasionally managing to plant a raspberry on their bellies. Science Journalist, Susan Kuchinaskas explains how every time we cuddle, we release the chemical oxytocin. This brain chemical makes us bond and
trust, it builds our deep lasting connections. It’s what we think of as love.
Here’s a way of giving your child a big dose of connection vitamins. Before getting dressed, give each child three or more minutes of your undivided attention. Put on a timer and say, “Okay we’ve got five minutes to do whatever you want” and shine warm attention on them as you follow their lead in play. Here’s how Special Time helped one Mum from a Building Emotional Understanding course:
“When my son started preschool, getting used to the new routine was hard for us all. We were all used to our pretty laid-back mornings where my son would sleep until he woke up on his own. When he did wake up, we would hang out in pyjamas and play for a while and not worry about breakfast until he said he was hungry or get dressed until we were ready to go out.
Of course preschool changed all this! Now I was giving orders all morning. “Time to get up,” Eat your breakfast,” “We need to get dressed,” and worst of all, “We don’t have time to play, we have to go!” All this happened even though I’m actually pretty relaxed about having to be at school “on time.” As I said to a friend, there are no tardy bells in preschool!
My son didn’t like this scenario at all either. He became frustrated easily and I listened to many tantrums around trivial issues like the shoes he wanted to wear, or whether I put milk on his cereal (or not!). I understood that it was good to listen to his feelings, and was OK about doing that (most of the time). But I was still feeling like a drill sergeant, and I could tell that my son was left feeling like he never got to do what he wanted to do in the mornings. It was a lousy way to start the day for us all!
It occurred to me that we might try Special Time in the mornings. I made a chart with pictures of all the things we have to do in the morning, including Special Time. As I was making the chart, I thought about where to put Special Time in our morning routine. The temptation was to put it after all the “business” had been taken care of, but I realized that in order to build a good current connection with my son, it would be best if Special Time was first thing we did.
The changes have been tremendous. Where before just getting out of bed was sometimes a struggle, now when he wakes up (even if he has to be gently woken) he hops up and says, “Let’s do Special Time!” Our struggles over getting dressed and ready to go are significantly diminished. Now when I need to get him moving, I can just ask him to look at the list and tell me what we need to do next. Now I don’t have to be the nag. I get to be the assistant who helps him get dressed, brush teeth, etc. when he tells me it’s time. We still have days when getting out the door is a struggle, but things are much smoother. Taking just 5 minutes to make sure that things go his way first thing in the morning starts us out on a note of connection and cooperation.”
Be Playful and Follow the Giggles
Try being playful. Using games that put your child in the powerful role and following their giggles (without tickling) can be very helpful. Unforced laughter not only helps us feel more connected, it also helps us release emotional tension. Here’s how Ravid Aisenman Abramsohn, mother to two, used playfulness:
“It was one of those mornings that are really hard to start. My youngest (6 at the time), was sleeping in more than usual, and I was also dragging myself around the morning routine. By the time she got up and I was ready, it was pretty tight time-wise. I knew if I rushed her to get ready, she would only get mad and we would probably be late for her school.
So, I decided to connect with her more playfully and hopefully get us all out of the door on time.
Instead of looking at the clock and saying: “It’s awfully late. Let’s get ready”, which would be my non-playful version, I pretended to be afraid of looking at the watch and asked her to stay with me and not leave the room.
We were both standing in the bathroom. I ‘fearfully’ tiptoed into the bedroom to get a glance at the watch. That got a lot of laughter going for my daughter. Then we had a quick session of ‘catch and kiss’ because she did not stay in the bed room. All
this time she asked me to ‘cry’ some more about the time and about her leaving me.
We did this once more. It lasted about 12 minutes in all. Only fifteen minutes were left to get her ready for school. Surprisingly enough, she got dressed in a swift, and even had enough time to sit and have breakfast. She was cheerful and calm.
Had I not chosen the playful path I believe we would have had a quarrel, with both of us getting frustrated about our needs not being met. We would have hardly made it out of the house in 20 minutes, and there would be breakfast in the car. I think I’ll stick with the playful path!”
Expect Upsets: Set Limits Early
And even with big doses of connection, our kids might still need us to step in, set limits and listen to their tears. I think it’s really helpful to give up on the idea that there won’t be any upsets or resistance in the morning. Instead, make sure you have time for them. When children become uncooperative, dawdling or inflexible it’s a big red flag that they need some help with their feelings. As tempting as it is to keep reminding children to do something, we help them more when we step in, before we get frazzled, and set limits.
We hear a lot about how children need to be self-regulating, but this doesn’t mean an absence of big feelings. The Bert Powell, from the Circle of Security research project, points out that children need an adult to “be with their feelings” when they experience big emotions. When we stay close, we help anchor a child as the wave emotions passes. In turn they can let out the hurts that are stopping their thinking and feel closer to the person who’s listening them as they let out their upset.
Here’s how Kathy Murphy, mother to two, set limits:
“My 10-year-old son woke up grumpy the Monday morning after a long weekend with his grandparents. He didn’t want to get out of bed, get dressed, or brush his teeth. Each step was a struggle. I finally moved in close, hugged him to me and told him that he
was going to school that day and he needed to get ready.
Little brother was concerned and I told him that his brother had some big feelings to get out and we’d be fine again soon. That cleared it up for him and he let us be. I sat with my older son for about 10 minutes of good crying until the tears subsided and we were just quiet for a time.
Then he got up, got dressed, brushed his teeth and was ready for school. Apparently he had a great day because he came home eager to dig into his owl research homework right away and even crafted his speech two days ahead of schedule.”
Keep it Simple and Get Help
And of course logistics and planning have a part to play. I know many families that have found getting help in the mornings makes a huge difference. Getting a relative, retired neighbour or teenager to come in, even half an hour, can change the whole tone of the morning.
Being organised helps us have space to focus on our children’s emotional needs. There is much sense in doing the bare
minimum in the morning. Do you really need a cooked breakfast? Could hair brushing be left out? What can be done the night before? The less there is to do, the more time you have for connection.
- Want to dive deeper? Join us on a Parenting by Connection Starter Class and explore these ideas indepth and get support as you apply them to your own family.
- Thanks, Credits & References - Thanks to: Hand in Hand Instructors Juli Idleman, Ravid Aisenman Abramsohn and Kathy Murphy for generously sharing their stories with me. Credits: Jennifer Kolari of Connected Parenting for the morning snuggle; Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting for the "100 hugs and kisses game", Special Time, following laughter and Setting limits early. References: Susan Kuchinaskas, "The Chemicals of Connection" 2009