When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” ~L.R. Knost social justice activist and author on parenting
Ugh. Weekday mornings. Why do they suck so badly?! The morning routine has never been easy or fun, even when we didn’t have children. Add children to the mix and weekday mornings are complete and total chaos. What can we do? We have posed this and other related questions to our intrepid contributing writer and licensed family therapist, Vinay. Thank you for being willing to take on this topic!
A: Like most parents, I’m not under any illusion that weekday mornings are ever going to be idyllic. Mornings are not a pleasant time of day, at least for our family, but surely they can be better. What can we do to improve our weekday mornings?
V: The weekday morning routine with kids in the mix is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The morning struggle is one that is very close to my heart, in that I feel like I am going to have a heart attack from the stress of getting my boys to school on time! I am hoping our conversation can bring about some insights that help both of us as well as our wonderful Eat The Marshmallow readers.
After six years, my elementary school parenting journey is still unpredictable. There are mornings– far too many to count– where we are late off the starting block, and the rest of the morning is filled with anger, frustration, and an abundance of eye-rolls from my “eleventeen” year old. Having a plan for the morning routine is one important factor, but following it, morning after morning, is challenging and is what often gets us into trouble!
Before we get ourselves worked up about all the things that go wrong on weekday mornings, let’s try to focus on those precious rare occasions where the morning routine goes well, or is, at very least, free from the usual conflicts. When we are at the top of our game, mornings can be a wonderful blend of snuggles, laughter and games to get the kids engaged and ready for their day. We should take a moment to parse out what happens on those mornings and what things we got right. What aspects do those ephemeral “peaceful” mornings have in common.
The first thing is waking up on time. Getting up early enough, ahead of the kids wake-up time, allows us to be showered, dressed, hair done, snacks and lunches packed. If we happen to be super efficient maybe, just maybe, we have a moment to sit down with that first cup of caffeinated morning magic and enjoy a minute or two of zen before the circus begins. For me, this is definitely the one thing that makes the biggest difference. Getting up early enough to give myself the tiniest bit of space to be completely ready BEFORE my children are even awake allows me to be much calmer and gentler in my actions, in my tone of voice and in my general attitude. When I’ve taken care of myself first, I feel more playful. I’m more forgiving of little missteps and I can ease my boys into the morning with open arms and good humor.
For those who practice yoga, meditation, Tai Chi or some other grounding, peaceful routine, getting in a 10 minute practice before the rest of the house is up and about shores up reserves of patience and starts the day on an intentional note.
A: Before I let you continue listing the positive things the “good” mornings seem to have in common, I have to admit even though I have experienced this same thing– when I manage to get myself up early enough to take care of my morning routine first– I still cringe at the thought of giving up more sleep…even if it is just a half hour less…
V: I know, it just doesn’t seem fair does it? But here are a few things to think about. You are worth the time, we are worth the time. The positives really outweigh the negatives. When I am trying to manage my own morning routine as well as my kids’ at the same time, the chances of irritation, curt tones, raised voices and rushed actions rises. All of my frustration and irritation simply shuts down cooperation from the boys as their nervous systems become awash with negative emotions and their executive functioning processes take an unauthorized leave-of-absence. This leaves them unable to think straight or reason and listen well, which just makes things all the worse.
A: Well, that is all too true.
V: I say this knowing that we won’t always be able to get to bed on time, and we won’t always be able to get up early enough to fully take care of ourselves before the kids wake up. But we are looking at the things that are in our control and that make morning time more pleasant for all.
A: Ok, so what other things seem to happen on the rare and aspirational “peaceful” mornings?
V: Well, it seems like taking we, the parents, out of the “bad guy” role helps set a better tone for the morning. If kids take more ownership of their morning routine, they gain a sense of empowerment and responsibility. This can take many different forms. Getting older kids an alarm clock takes on the unpleasant task of initially waking them up, leaving you to greet them cheerily with a big hug as they stumble out of their bedrooms bleary-eyed and (hopefully) dressed for the day.
And, by the way, if they happen to do that very basic thing like getting themselves dressed before they head out of their rooms, we as parents, can then reinforce their feelings of self-worth with encouraging words of appreciation. We trick them into feeling good about the things that make all of our lives easier!
Another thing that gives children opportunities to have control and ownership of the morning routine is having them prepare as much as possible the night before the school morning. Have school clothes ready and lunches packed and in the fridge. Backpacks containing homework should be by the front door along with shoes, sports equipment, instruments and anything else they know they will need depending upon the day. Keeping the morning routine as simple as possible increases our chances of getting our kids out the door on time with our sanity intact.
A: Yes! It’s funny because as you say this, I remember my husband and I, several months ago, started to express appreciation for our daughter when she remembered to bring her water bottle and glasses downstairs and pack them into her backpack. Just today, she brought down her water bottle and glasses to pack them up for school, and because I didn’t notice, largely because this has become a common occurrence, she noted in a singsong-y tone, “Do you see? I brought down water bottle and glasses…” She was just waiting get that moment of recognition and positive reinforcement!
V: Exactly! And kudos to her for reminding you to give her that moment! And you know, even when we don’t have our child actively reminding us to praise her, just making an unspoken goal of spending 5 minutes of snuggly one-on-one time with each child when they awaken, starting with the eldest child, can be a wonderful way to reconnect after the night’s separation. This will leave them feeling all filled up with love which should make them much more cooperative about engaging in the morning routine.
You can also help your children be successful by helping them organize themselves. Pair necessary tasks with desired activities, so that getting dressed occurs before breakfast, and brushing teeth and putting on shoes occurs before some free play/reading /drawing time. Maybe in the Spring and Summer months, having breakfast outside might be something the kids look forward to and this may incentivize them to get dressed quickly. Observe what your child likes to do in the morning and see if you can use that to incentivize them to speed up getting another step done that they might otherwise be slow to do, like brushing teeth or making their beds.
But you know, the really big piece of how the morning goes, which won’t be a surprise to any parent reading this, is sleep. A child’s readiness to engage in the morning routine is closely related to the quality and quantity of their sleep. There are plenty of available guidelines for recommended amounts of sleep at different ages*, like from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Establishing a good night’s sleep as a regular aspect of positive mental and physical health is essential.
A: What helps set up a good sleep routine?
V: First off, a consistent bedtime, including on weekends. And that bedtime should be informed by the recommended hours of sleep needed by your child according to their age. This also includes a half hour of no screen time before your children are getting into bed. This is backed by American Academy of Pediatrics. Research has shown the blue light emitted by our screens suppresses our brain’s ability to produce melatonin, the hormone responsible for the natural evening surge which makes us feel sleepy.
Screen-time in the evening makes our children feel more awake at bedtime, causes bedtime to take much longer, and steals the time available for sleep. Instead, mentally stimulating, but emotionally neutral non-screen activities such as jigsaw or crossword puzzles, drawing, playing a card game, or reading a book, are excellent ways to tire out the brain in preparation for sleep.
In the Spring time, as the days grow longer, nature works against us! Getting the kids to bed on time is harder in the Spring with more hours of daylight. So, it is up to us to help mimic the rhythm we need them to follow to ensure enough hours of sleep for the night. Dimming the lights, playing soothing music, using candles with natural relaxing scents can all help bring the energy down. We also need to be intentional about our activity level, thereby modeling for our children a gentler energy as we approach bedtime. I realize this can be difficult for those of us who are night owls and just start feeling energized at 10pm!
A: Yeah, so what about the night owls– the kids who naturally are awake in the evenings and have a harder time waking up early for school? We are literally going against their very nature…
V: Unfortunately for the night owls, our school and work systems currently still have an early morning start, so its up to those night owl parents to modulate their energy until the kids are in bed, fast asleep. For children who are night owls, again its up to the parents to set the routine and consistency is key.
Given that our morning routines tend to be based on the start times for school and work–factors that are beyond our control– the more we need to help our night owl kids adjust to this timeframe while still ensuring they get enough sleep. The more we prepare them to meet the day in the best possible frame of mind, the better. This may mean shifting to a later, more natural bedtime earlier by just a few minutes every few days until your child reaches a bedtime which allows him to have enough time for sleep and and in order to wake up with relative ease. Staying consistent even during the weekends for the first month will allow the new habit to become established.
If you have more than one child, another strategy that helps ease the kids into sleep mode is staggering their bedtimes. This allows for one-on-one time between a parent and child before the hours of night time separation. This shift in the bedtime routine has worked wonders for us. My six-year-old and I spend 10 minutes doing a sedentary activity he loves (a game of Uno, or drawing together) followed by a story, snuggling and then sleep. Meanwhile, my 11-year-old gets his school reading done then quietly builds Legos. Once the younger one is tucked in and off to dreamland, I spend 10 minutes doing a calming activity of the older one’s choice, or I read him a chapter of whatever he is reading. Then we snuggle and talk for a few minutes and he heads off to bed. While this lengthens the bedtime routine it allows us all to connect and, most importantly, gives the boys a feeling of warmth, affection and security. I think pays huge dividends in the morning.
A: Sure. So, now that we’ve covered all the things we can do to set up for success. Let’s get down to some troubleshooting. Because best laid plans…
V: Oh yes indeed!
A: How do we help kids that have poor working memory or are only capable of one task at a time? My daughter can’t seem to retain more than one “to-do” at a time and I know this is a common problem especially with kids who have ADHD/ ADD or other types of processing/ learning challenges. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve experienced this scenario: You’ve check in on your child and they were all set to get dressed. You leave to go multi-task something or other, and you come back to discover that not only is your child not dressed for school, but is instead rolling around on her bed, talking to her stuffed animals, reading a graphic novel, or doing any number of things that is not the task at hand. What do you do? Knowing that if you start yelling, it might slow her down further…
V: For many children who experience additional challenges, I absolutely agree that yelling doesn’t work (having tried and failed at it numerous times). It just leaves everyone starting the day with an unpleasant taste in their mouth.
Some parents I work with have a laminated to-do list of pictures showing the necessary tasks. Their child checks off each “line item” per se, when each task is completed. I believe that breaking down each task into the smallest steps, while tiresome for parents, helps kids build the skills slowly but surely towards greater independence. This might look like having our kiddo come high-five us when their pants and socks are on, and then come back again for another high-five once their shirts and sweaters are on, and then again once their hair is brushed and bathroom tasks are complete. Injecting some playfulness into the morning might relieve some of the pressure they feel, especially when they are challenged in terms of working memory.
We may also choose to walk through the process with our kids, first by showing them, and then by asking them what comes next (as often as is needed) until they’re taking over the routine for themselves. Again, only by being completely ready ourselves can this be doable.
Amy McCready, parenting expert and author of If I Have To Tell You One More Time has a parenting tool she refers to as “Taking Time for Training” in which we show our child, step-by-step, how to complete a given task. She suggests doing practice runs of regularly used routines, perhaps setting a timer on a Saturday morning to run through the daily expectations of getting dressed, eating breakfast and brushing teeth. By timing the whole routine, we can then tweak the routine as necessary.
A: Regarding the laminated to-do list for the kids, we ran into some unforeseen problems. This was a few years ago, when my daughter was in second grade. At the time, to help organize the mornings and give my daughter a reference list for the morning routine, we had a picture chart write on/ wipe off board which listed of all the things she needed to do in the morning before leaving for school. This kind of worked for a while. She saw the list and liked using it, but she’d waste a lot of time doing one thing at a time, running back to her room each time to check off the item on the list. When I tried to give her the list to take with her from room to room, she’d refuse because it was a change. We had introduced it as a list that was on her wall in her room and she wanted it to stay that way. When I tried to change the routine, based on how the list was working for us, there was a large, stress-induced tantrum that led us to be late for school.
What can we do for the kids who are rigid (whether from autism or other challenges)? Some kids just can’t cope with quick changes, and mornings, even when we try to make mornings as predictable as possible. When something unexpected happens, even a small change, it is “game over” for these kids. Is there something we can do to help our rigid kids cope with a world that changes too fast for them to process and adapt?
V: This rigidity certainly adds a layer of stress to the family system because even when life is relatively calm, we parents are on high alert for the next thing that might trigger a meltdown. That anxiety keeps us on edge, and these very sensitive kids, already hyper aware of their surroundings, can be affected by our own anxiety. As much as we try to hide it, our anxiety feeds their own. When their anxiety feels intolerable, as it often does very quickly with kiddos with such finely tuned nervous systems, we see a shutdown in the executive functions of their brains and emotions begin to run the show. This, in turn, causes chaos within the child and extreme stress within us.
For many children, the rigidity and inflexibility that parents see throughout the day is also very much alive in the morning because it is an acute time for everyone. It can oftentimes be a result of having an overflowing emotional load that hasn’t been fully released. The good thing here is there are strategies we can use, and it doesn’t need to be left until the morning when everyone feels the time pressures.
Traditional parenting practices has us reacting to off-track behavior, usually by sending kids to their rooms, or imposing other punishments. This does not allow us to explore more deeply how to respond to the underlying emotional upset driving the offensive behavior. This leaves parents frustrated and bewildered, and children ultimately dissatisfied in the resolution of the issue. The emotions underlying the behavior become stuck. They are build up within our children and cause further off-track behaviors like whining, non-compliance, defiance and aggression. This is because feelings are not expressed on the child’s terms, through tears or talk, and not subsequently heard and processed with a trusted adult.
These stuck emotions bring about inflexibility in thought, like the kiddo who has to have big brother follow exactly these steps to play the game or the whole thing is ruined, or the preteen who is snappy and angry at the drop of a hat whereas just a few minutes ago, her smile was like sunshine. Those stuck, unexpressed emotions could be from earlier in the day when dad snapped at little Joe, or three days ago when the teacher was unnecessarily curt in her tone and it still rankles the child, or last month when the family pet passed on and the grief is unresolved. It ultimately matters far less what is causing the misbehavior, and far more important that we give space, grace and compassion when our children exhibit it. We can think of it as, “my child is having a hard time” rather than, “my child is giving me a hard time.”
We can help guide our more rigid kids by modeling healthy emotional expressions. By better handling our own elevated feelings, for example, when we become angry (regardless of why), we can let the family know what we are feeling and that we are going to step away to take some time to cool down. Dr. Laura Markham has some great tips for calming our anger so that we are not lashing out at our kids and so they in turn don’t lash out at us or each other.
We can begin to incorporate more emotional language in our day-to-day interactions with our children, sharing our own experiences of feeling a positive emotion as well as a negative emotion as well as what we did about it in the moment: “Oh I was so frustrated today when I was in my meeting and one of my coworkers began to interrupt whenever I made a statement or asked a question! I was about ready to yell and tell him to shut right up. But, instead of making a scene, I ducked out for a quick bathroom break and did some deep breathing! By the time I returned to the meeting I was calm enough to tell him to let me finish before he interrupted, and he was able to do that. Phew, what a close one!”
Encouraging belly-breathing such that the belly inflates on the inhale, and releases on the exhale physiologically helps kids voluntarily regulate their Autonomic Nervous System. This has many benefits— especially by lowering their heart rate, regulating blood pressure, and helping them relax, all of which help decrease how much of the stress hormone, cortisol, is released into their body. Practice when your child is calm by having her lie down and put a soft toy on her belly. Watching her toy go up and down controlled by her breath shows her that she is belly-breathing correctly. This breathing allows for a deeper inhalation and exhalation, slowing down the rush of stress and anxiety hormones.
Belly-breathing can be a part of a larger proprioceptive/body awareness strategy. Alisha Grogan, Occupational Therapist, describes proprioception as “our body’s ability to know where it is at any given time (otherwise called body awareness). And just like we see through receptors called our eyes, with proprioception, we know where our body is because of receptors that run all through our muscles and joints. Our vision is stimulated by bright lights or moving objects, and proprioception is stimulated by pressure to the receptors all throughout our body. Anytime we squeeze through a tight space, hug someone, or jump up and down we are getting proprioceptive input.” Her website provides a list of 80 proprioceptive activities,** but two short examples are: having your child put her palms flat against the wall, plant her feet firmly on the floor and push for 5-10 seconds at a time, or she can push her palms together for 5-10 seconds at a time. These proprioceptive inputs can be very soothing to a child.
Physical touch can help bring down the energy level and calm the nervous system. But, for some children, touch during these high-stress moments can be too overwhelming and exacerbate the anxiety they feel. In these cases, using voice alone can maintain the connection between you. Use short phrases, saying them slowly and softly, with a deeper voice tone, such as, “It’s just _____ that’s different right now, everything else is the same. It’s going to be okay.”
When your child is ready to receive a little more input from you, you can show her how to massage her own palm with the thumb of her other hand, moving in a slow circular motion, and remind her of this activity when she is feeling frustrated by an unexpected development to the morning routine. Additionally, you can put on some music and dance it out for a few minutes to switch gears, distract from the stressor and get back on track.
A: Music soothes the savage beast…
V: Yes! You know, all of this may seem like a lot for the time we have to sort out our daily morning routines, but being prepared with some handy tricks up our sleeves can sometimes salvage the morning and allow the family to dodge a tantrum and subsequent school tardiness.
And sometimes, when you can see that there will be no avoiding the meltdown, it is beneficial to just let the emotions be expressed and to accept that you are all going to be late that day. Creating space and safety for children to be able to cry through situations that are distressing to them is important. And it is equally important that they are allowed to cry until they are all done crying. When we allow our children the space and support to cry their feelings out to the very end, something magical happens. Kids are much better able to shake off that which was bothering them, their higher thinking functions come back online, they are more connected, more cooperative and much more affectionate for having released those heavy feelings. But, for this to work, it admittedly requires us to have awareness of our own reactions and biases. We have to remain calm and empathetic through the tears and we need manage our own stress levels enough to remain open and nurturing.
A: Once again, it is through our own self-care that we give ourselves the best chance at handling and navigating the morning routine well. Do you think that this is realistic? Do you really think we have a chance to regularly experience the “peaceful” weekday morning?
V: I absolutely do believe that with some groundwork, planning and practice, better mornings are an attainable goal. We can begin by having our children’s input about what a morning routine might look like, so we are helping them build healthy conversation and expectations. As per Amy McCready’s work on holding family meetings, “there is no buy-in without weigh in.” Having such a meeting might be the first step in the creation of a new morning routine. This allows for the expression of all family members’ ideas about the non-negotiable and negotiable components that need to be incorporated. Upon establishing a preliminary plan, you can practice during the weekend and make changes as you go along. Once you seem to hit a good balance, “go live” at the beginning of the week!
If you leave time during the evening meal each day of that first week to talk about what worked and what didn’t, you can develop a routine that makes your mornings run as close to clockwork as is possible in the parenting world.
A: As always, thank you Vinay for imparting your wisdom to us!
Some useful resources
Sleep.org, “Ways Technology Affects Sleep”
** Occupational Therapist, Alisha Grogan’s site Your Kid’s Table list of proprioceptive activities.
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and drinking tea!