Getting out of the house in the morning can be tough, and sometimes picking kids up after school is no tea party either! Here are a few strategies to try if you find yourself yelling, bribing, punishing, or frequently frustrated with your child before the day has even begun. They also work well when you’ve been separated by a long day of work or school.
1. Wake up earlier. I am no morning person, so I hate to even say this. But I want you to try it, because if mornings are hard, you need to make more time for connection, as well as any tears or upsets that come your way.
2. Offer Special Time. Once your little one gets up, tell her she has ten minutes for Special Time (or anywhere from five to twenty minutes, depending on what you have time for). You set a timer and let her know that during Special Time she can do whatever she wants.
The sky is the limit during Special Time…within the boundaries of safety and reason, of course. During Special Time, don’t sip that cup of coffee that might be waiting for you, or quickly send a text. Put aside your phone and any other distractions. Pour in all of the warm and focused attention that you can as you follow their lead. And remember that this is one-on-one time—so if there are siblings nearby, have another parent take care of them, or do Special Time with one child while the others are sleeping.
3. Make time to play. Make silly play part of the nourishment they get before they start their day. One mom, after fighting tiresome battles with her girls in the morning before school, made one playful change in the morning that worked. Here’s what she did:
After trying every threat and punishment I could think of, I finally started getting up thirty minutes early so we could play. I mean, really play! We started with Special Time. My husband and I would trade off playing with each girl so each of them got a chance with each parent. We did twenty minutes right after breakfast, before we asked them to do that infinite list of chores before they went to school. It worked! They actually brushed their teeth without threats! They even made their beds without me helping. It was amazing.
4. Set a limit and make room for the upset. Sometimes big feelings come up before school because kids are worried about leaving you or about what the day might bring. If they tell you they don’t want to go school, you can respond with a simple, “I know, sweetie,” and listen to what they have to say or the feelings that come up without trying to make things better. Just listen and be empathic.
But sometimes children don’t tell you with words that they’re sad about going to school, or grumpy about starting the day. Instead, it comes out in not wanting to eat what you’ve made them, pinching their baby sister, or refusing to get dressed. And that’s when a limit might help.
Limits are vital for children. Your child needs and deserves a limit as soon as his behavior becomes unworkable. A firm limit gives your child the chance to offload the upset or emotional tension that clouds his behavior so he can return to his cheerful nature. Here’s how sitting a limit helped one mom in the morning:
When my son was four, he went through a period of great resistance to getting dressed. Over a few weeks I tried all sorts of play to loosen the tension. I’d make his clothes talk to him and hide from him, try to put them on myself, pretend to not know how to help him get dressed. Despite my efforts, getting dressed remained a daily struggle.
Finally, one day I told him it was time to put his clothes on. When he tried to run away I pulled him onto my lap and said again, “It’s time to get dressed now.” He started to cry and thrash. I kept him with me, holding his arms so he couldn’t hit or scratch, and listened.
When he started to let up I’d tell him that it was time to put his clothes on, and then listen while he cried some more. After what felt like a very long time he stopped struggling, sat up in my lap, looked right at me and asked if I would still recognize him when he grows up. I reassured him that I’d always know him and always love him, even if he looked different. It was like a switch had been flipped. After offloading that fear, getting dressed was no longer an issue.
Limits set in this way—before a parent is angry or reactive—help a child regulate himself and work through his challenges, with someone who is really listening.
These same tips work for after school as well. Offer your child Special Time when he gets home or at the end of the day. It’s also a great way to connect before bed!
If you have more than one child with you, “playlistening” is a great way to reduce the tension that builds throughout the day. One mom I know managed to stave off her daughter’s grumpiness after school when she first started kindergarten by offering to wrestle and pillow-fight with her two girls:
Each daughter took a 5-minute turn fighting or wrestling with me on the bed in my room. The other watched from the sidelines, playing referee and keeping time while her sister was ‘in the ring’ with me. Each daughter relished this time. I could see their eyes light up with mischievousness as they came up with ways to “overpower” me.
Their favorite time was when I played the bumbling villain. They giggled with delight when I was clumsy. I’d try and catch them but ‘fell’ and missed them and they would escape from me every time. I let them push me over and outsmart me. I could feel their glint of confidence getting stronger with each push and shove. After a full day of following adults’ instructions and schedules at school, the play sessions finally put them in control and gave them power. For once, the grown up was playing the fool and making all the mistakes.
Those playtimes soon became a routine for their family after school. The mom noticed that her older daughter’s school-related stress seemed to diminish through wrestling time, and she played better with her sister afterward.
Taking time to connect through play or Special Time, after the daily separation of work and school, can help your little ones feel closer and more connected to you. Shining this attention and love on them helps them to be more cooperative and compassionate not only with you, but with their friends and siblings too.