A mother asked about an issue she is having with her three year old daughter who is refusing to get dressed in the morning. This is a familiar story these days. Many mothers are now working out of the home and mornings are pressured with everyone having to get ready to leave by a certain time. That was the situation for this family and mom was searching for a solution to her daughter’s resistance.
She reported trying various approaches, such as giving the girl a choice of what to wear. After trying to reason with the child, explaining why she had to get ready to leave, mom was exasperated and said to her daughter that she was becoming impatient because she, the mom, really had to leave. The little girl said sympathetically, “I know mommy, I see that you’re getting impatient.” The mother was floored at this sophisticated response.
This is a wonderful story that also says so much about interactions between parents and children in the modern age. In one sense there was almost a role reversal with the mother becoming frustrated and the child in effect, consoling her. But they were not on the same page. Mom was intense about the need to get ready and get out while her daughter, understanding perfectly what the mom wanted, had a different idea entirely about what she wanted – the need to leave did not interest her.
The attempt to be rational with a young child is a very familiar approach that often ends with parental frustration. In conflicts like this what a parent wants or needs seems completely reasonable from an adult point of view. Parents think that if they explain this reasonably the child will – or should comply. The idea is to achieve one’s goal through persuasion.
The problem is that parents and children are in different realities – what seems reasonable to the parent may not seem at all reasonable to a child. A conflict arises when a parent and child want different things. The issue is not to persuade the child to want what you want; it is to help the child accomplish your goal even when he or she has a different goal. It is possible to do something even when you don’t want to do it – a major life lesson for children.
The question becomes how to teach that lesson without turning it into a major conflict. Any transition is hard for young children – even for adults at times. Sometimes they are being asked to move from the comfort of home onto something else and feel pressured in the process. Getting dressed becomes a great point of resistance. From a parent’s point of view, the child has mastered getting dressed on her own and should be able to cooperate with mom’s need.
This is a situation where simply helping a child get started without all the talk about the need to get dressed, can go a long way – especially if the conversation turns instead to what parent and child will be doing that day. Parents sometimes think it wrong to help a child get dressed when she is capable of doing it on her own. What can get in a parent’s way is the idea that the child should just listen and do what the parent says. That becomes more important than the goal of getting dressed.
To say to a child that you will help her get started is saying that you know this is hard and not what the she wants to do. You are accepting the child’s feeling and helping with the behavior. In this instance it was the child who was accepting the mom’s feeling without changing her own behavior. As a three year old, she seemed most empathetic but also spoke the way this mom perhaps speaks when she is not under pressure herself.
This may be a good reminder that just saying to a child, “I see you are angry (or frustrated),” does not truly address the situation. The challenge is to find a way to help a child through it.