Updated: Nov 16, 2019
This month's question comes from Chiara all the way from Italy.
Q: "My 3 year old girl has a hard time during the morning and evening routines. I've tried everything, from singing and using a soothing voice to using visuals and even giving "orders," but she will always whine because she doesn't want to brush her teeth, and then have a bath, and then get dressed... Until the routine is over and she instantly becomes the usual smiling, sweetest toddler. Any suggestions?? Thank you and cheers from Italy!"
A: Thank you so much for your question Chiara! Cheers to you too! :-)
Toddlers have their own spirit, don't they? They just have their own plans and ideas on how they are going to tackle everything. And sometimes, what they want to do just doesn't match your plans as the mom.
It's important to note that, a little defiance and whining from a toddler is normal and developmentally appropriate. And from what it sounds like, you're definitely doing something right because she's complying with your directives, even if she doesn't want to. That's a victory in itself!
But, at the end of the day, that little power struggle (the whining and the push back from your toddler) can get exhausting. What else can you do to smooth these routines out? Let's take a look at why these morning/evening routines can be difficult for toddlers, and then we'll tap into some other interventions you can try to help your daughter manage these daily tasks more peacefully.
Why Morning/Evening Routines are so Rough
Transitions, in general, are a struggle for many kids, but especially for toddlers, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and children that suffer from Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This is the primary reason that morning/evening routines are so difficult for these groups.
All transitions are usually disliked because they typically mean that the child has to end an enjoyable activity and switch to something else. If the child is switching from a favored activity to a less favorable one, then the resistance to the switch will be even greater.
Some classic transitions that present major struggles for parents are:
> Daycare or school drop off
> Pick up from Grandma's house (or any other beloved caregiver's home)
> End of "tablet time" (or any other electronic for that matter)
There are several reasons why each one of these transitions create so much struggle, and to discuss them all would lead us into a very deep rabbit hole that may not be very useful to you. Instead, I want to focus on what the morning and evening routines may symbolize to your daughter. In doing this, we will be able to pull out strategies that might be more effective for your specific situation.
Now, I'm not sure if your toddler goes to daycare during the day or if you stay home with her. If she goes to daycare (or another caregiver during the day), it's not surprising that the morning routine would set her off. The routine is signaling to her mind that her time with you is coming to an end. And most toddlers hate that!
The same could be said about the evening routine. This routine is signaling to your daughter that it's almost time for bed, which means she won't "be with you" anymore because she's going to sleep. Plus, have you ever seen a toddler that actually wants to go to sleep? They are very rare indeed!
Perhaps you stay home with your little girl. As such, the separation from you is not as much the problem. The higher likelihood is, she's having to switch from a more favorable activity (such as playing) to a less favorable one (like brushing her teeth). As such, the struggle begins.
Time for Problem-Solving
Now that we have a greater understanding of what might be causing the struggle for your child, let's look at some strategies we can try to alleviate some of the resistance you're experiencing.
1. Provide Ample Warning- This is a simple tactic that you can use with kids of any age and for any transition. All you have to do is give your child several warnings that a transition is approaching. This helps them to mentally prepare for the transition that is coming. I usually recommend 4 warnings that are structured as follows: 15 minute, 10 min, 5 min, and 1 min.
When providing your warning, be sure you have your child's attention and that you are communicating clearly what is going to happen. For example:
"In 15 minutes, we are going to stop playing and brush your teeth."
"You have 10 minutes left. Then, we will stop playing and brush your teeth."
"You have 5 minutes left, and then we will brush your teeth."
"In 1 minute, we will stop playing and brush your teeth."
"Times up. I need you to stop playing now and come brush your teeth."
Notice that each warning is providing your child with a clear expectation of what is going to happen when the time is up. This is what helps your child understand what to expect and when to expect it (more on this later).
2. Consider a Timer- In my home, I love using a timer with my 3-year-old son. It's a simple digital timer that counts down and gives a repetitive beeping noise once the time is up. I use the timer with my warnings. So, I'll set the timer for 15 minutes, and I'll let my son know that when he hears the "beep-beep" sound, it means the time is up and he'll need to brush his teeth. Then, I'll provide the 10 min, 5 min, and 1 min warnings as stated above. When the timer goes off, I point out to him the beeping sound and acknowledge that the time has come to switch activities.
What I love about using a timer is that I'm no longer the Bad Guy, the timer is! So when he groans about the timer going off, I'll align with him and acknowledge what a bummer it is, saying something like:
"Awww, I know! The timer went off. Bummer! I guess it's just time to brush our teeth now. We can always come back and play right after."
Aligning with my child against the timer is great! We can share in the disappointment together and he gets to feel my support.
When using the timer and aligning with your child, there is a secret BONUS benefit you are getting too! In looking at my example above, you can see I'm pretending that I'm also upset the timer has gone off. I verbalize my disappointment ("Awww, I know! Bummer!"), and then I vocalize how it's time to comply with the directive ("I guess it's time to brush our teeth"). Finally, I verbalize some problem-solving and resiliency ("We can always come back and play after").
In doing this, I'm modeling to my child how to use his words to express emotions, I'm modeling compliance with parental directives (doesn't matter that they're my own directives), I'm modeling problem-solving skills (i.e. playing afterwards), and I'm modeling resiliency (i.e. not allowing the situation to negatively affect me).
Modeling is one of the best tools we have as parents, and it plays a big role in my Wholistic Parenting system. Modeling is one of those ways that you help set up those expectations for your child too! Regardless of whether or not you decide to use a timer, you can always use Modeling to your advantage.
3. Make the Activity Fun- Now, it sounds like you are already doing this because you mention singing and so on. This is great! Trying to make boring activities more enjoyable can certainly lessen the drudgery of it. I've also done things like having a "race" (i.e. who can brush their teeth faster, who can take a bath faster, etc.), encouraged him to brush my teeth while I brush his, or invited toys to join us in the activity. Making the activity fun is certainly a great tactic!
4. Set Clear Expectations- I hinted above that we would talk more about expectations, and here we are! The clearer and more specific you are in your expectations, the more likely it is that your child will comply. You want to make sure your child knows exactly what is expected from her throughout the day. The primary way you do this is through clear and specific expectations. I could write a whole blog post on this topic alone, but I'll try to condense the ideas as much as possible here.
There are several factors that play into how you set expectations for your child. From modeling, to your established family rules, to your own parental reactions, there are several factors that are going to interplay in the shaping of your child's behavior. The 2 primary factors, however, that you use to communicate to your child your expectations of their behavior are:
> Verbal Directives
Verbal Directives are the specific commands you give your child and have to do with your word choices. The examples I gave above in the first tip are a good reflection of clear and specific directives. (You can also check out my blog post Parenting the ADHD Kid where I give my recipe for clear verbal directives called The 4 W's.)
Rewards & Consequences has to do with the overall structure you've provided in your home, and how you've shaped your child's behavior over time through the use of Rewards & Consequences. Last month, I wrote a blog post about the Terrible Two's, and in that blog post I provide some specific examples on giving commands and went into some great depth on Rewards & Consequences. If you missed it, I recommend reading it since the tips I provided there would equally work in your situation now too.
5. Be Consistent- If parenting could be shaped into a table, this would be one of the 4 legs! Parental Consistency is vital in all aspects of parenting. Sometimes I feel like a broken record as I repeat this point over and over again to the families I have served in the past.
Make sure you are consistent. Be consistent with how you structure her day and when the morning/evening routines happen. Be consistent on how you provide her warnings for transitions. Be consistent on how you set expectations for her. Just be consistent.
All children thrive off of consistency, and toddlers require it even more than older children. The more consistent you are, the better. Consistency can be broken down into 3 parts:
> Consistency between co-parents
> Consistency between children
> Consistency from day to day
I'm not going to go into each one of these since I have a blog post that goes into detail on this topic called How to Achieve Parental Consistency. I'd recommend you take a look and see if this is something that might be adding to the struggle. An example of how this could be a factor to the problem is that you might be great at following your morning and evening routines, but your co-parent (if you have one) may not be doing as good of a job. This can then send mixed messages to your child and increase the likelihood of resistance.
I'm hoping these tips will help you in smoothing out those morning/evening transitions. I wanted to take a moment really quick, once again, to highlight that you are doing a great job. Yes, she's whining, but it sounds like she is still complying and doing so without having a total meltdown! That's a great parental victory. It tells me that you are probably already applying a lot of these tips, which means you are on the right track!
Just remember that, with our little ones especially, whining is developmentally normal. In fact, most adults whine when they have to do something they don't want to. So, it's hard to expect our children not to whine when this is the behavior we are modeling to them.
A final point I wanted to make is on timelines. Whenever we are going to try a new parenting technique to shape our children's behavior, we usually try it out for 1-2 weeks. Invariably, we end up disappointed because after 2 weeks, we see no improvement. As such, we conclude that the technique didn't work and we move on to the next strategy. This is a huge mistake....
In family therapy, I always coach to my clients that they should try a technique for about 2 months. (Yes! TWO MONTHS!) If they don't see an improvement by the end of 2 months, then we will switch techniques. It seems like a really long time, but here's why....
Whenever you are trying to shape behavior (whether it's your child's or your own), you are trying to break bad behavioral habits and form new ones. The process of replacing habits is not easy. It takes about 2-3 weeks to break a habit and an additional 2-3 weeks to begin forming a new one. That's about 2 months, and that's assuming you are being extremely consistent in your application of the technique.
The fatal flaw most parents make is trying a technique for 2 weeks (maybe even a month) and then giving-up when they don't see a huge improvement in behavior. So, they switch to something else, try that for another 2 weeks, and then switch again. This creates chaos for the kids AND for the parents, and it just doesn't work!
Every time the parent switches the technique, they create confusion for the child, send mixed messages, and (the biggest error of all) they show their child that they aren't consistent! When parents finally come to me in therapy, they've made this mistake over and over again. As such, it makes the work even harder for me as the therapist because I have to prove to those kiddos that their parents will be consistent this time around and won't be giving up.
So, the lesson here is, whenever you are going to try a new parenting technique, expect to try that technique for 2 months. If you see absolutely NO improvement, then switch it up. BUT, if you notice even a tiny bit of improvement at the end of 2 months, give it 1 more month. It's working, maybe not as fast as we would like, but it is working! And switching it now may do more harm than good since you would be starting all over.
Phew! That was a long one, but hopefully helpful! Feel free to email me if you have any questions or need clarification on something. And I'd love to hear from you in the future on how it all ended up. Thanks again for your question Chiara!