“Ethan protests taking a bath every night.” “Talia takes forever to get dressed in the morning.” I have rarely met a family that hasn’t struggled in some way with getting their children through daily routines. Families with young children face these types of struggles because most toddlers have some degree of difficulty with transitions.

Children have a hard time moving from one task to another, especially during morning and bedtime routines, for many reasons, including:

  • Young children want to assert some control over their world. So whenever there is a demand to follow someone else’s agenda, such as yours, there is a natural tendency to defy it.
  • Sometimes children haven’t tuned in to your directions. They haven’t processed all of the information being communicated to them, so they can’t act on it.
  • Some children start to follow a direction, but can get distracted and lose track of what they are supposed to focus on.
  • Morning and nighttime routines are associated with separations, such as going to child care/school, saying goodnight, etc. This can be emotionally challenging for young children.

Here are ways to help children better cope with transitions and daily routines.

Make goodbyes easier. Feelings drive children’s behavior. The more we name and empathize with their emotions, the less likely it is that they will have to act them out. “I know, mornings can be hard. We have to get ready for work and school and then say goodbye until dinnertime.” Once you have shown understanding you can help your child cope: “But, we all have important jobs to do during the day. Yours is to play with grandma/go to school and learn all sorts of cool stuff and mine is to (fill in the blank). Why don’t we read four pages of your favorite book before we leave for school, then the first thing we’ll do when we get home is finish the book together.” Creating a bridge like this between separations can be very comforting for kids and gives them something concrete to look forward to. For goodbyes, remind your child of the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood song, “Grownups Come Back.”

Make a visual schedule/calendar. This provides cues about what will happen next that can greatly ease transitions, especially when you include your child in creating the calendar. Take photos of all your child’s daily routines: waking up in the morning, having breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc. Be sure to include the people who help with these routines. For example, take photos of Mom helping with getting dressed in the morning, Dad giving a hug at preschool drop-off, and so on. Then, help your child create the calendar. Guide her to choose photos that depict each step of the routine and tape them up on any kind of paper/cardboard in chronological order. Go through the same process for the evening/nighttime routine.

Be sure your child is paying attention. Sometimes the reason a child is not cooperating is because he is tuned into something else. (The other day, a 3-year-old was so focused on an ant crawling on the ground that he didn’t register the teacher’s direction to line up against the wall.) Try using a cue when you want your child’s attention. Parents I know place a hand on their child’s shoulder to signal, “I have something to tell you. It’s time to stop doing what you’re doing and focus on me.” The more often you use these cues, the more powerful they are.

Communicate directions clearly. “Austin, please place your dish in the sink.” “Rumi, it’s time to go upstairs to take a bath.” This helps your child know exactly what is expected which is comforting to kids. Because giving a direction may feel dictatorial and we want to be “polite,” most of us tend to pose a direction as a question, such as: “Rumi, can you come upstairs?” Or, “Rumi, time to go upstairs, okay?” These phrases, however, are confusing to the child, who hears a choice rather than a direction. One recent example: a mom asked her 4-year-old multiple times, “Can you please come to the dinner table?” The child (logically) responded, “No, I’m not done with my game.”

Use the concept of “two great choices!” “Charlie, it’s time to go upstairs for a bath. You have two great choices: you can go upstairs on your own, or I will carry you up. You decide.” Focusing on the fact that your child is the decider and you are just carrying out his choices makes children feel more in control and less defiant. Also give your child some sense of control over the transition. “It’s time to get into the car. You have a choice: do you want to bring a book or listen to a story on tape?” The more your child feels he has some control over the process the more likely he is to comply.

Tune-in to your child’s emotions and desires. “I know you love to color and it’s so hard to stop doing something that’s so much fun. But now it’s time for what’s next on our schedule — getting dressed!” Remember, when you validate your child’s feelings, it makes it less likely she will need to act them out.

Stay positive. Your tone is infectious. “If you don’t put the crayons down on the count of three you won’t have them for a week!” makes kid more defiant and less likely to cooperate. Try: “Mommy is going to be a helper and put these crayons away so you can focus on eating your breakfast.” The calmer you are the more likely it is that your child will get calm and comply.   

Of course, every child is different. These strategies are great for some kids and not effective for others. For example, some kids respond well to making a breakfast choice the night before. For other children, it leads to a breakdown in the morning when they change their minds. You know your child best. Use your judgment and adapt these tools to best meet your child’s and your family’s needs.

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has become the Senior Parenting Advisor to enable her to spend more time in her direct work supporting families with young children and consulting with early care and education programs to best meet the needs of the children in their care.

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