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5 Common Morning Struggles and How to Deal With Them

How to cure dawdling, tiredness, anxiety and more morning showstoppers

Taylor Johnson

Published on: August 20, 2013

Back-to-school morning strugglesGetting back into the morning rush after a school break can seem close to impossible. Have you experienced a recent mad chase after a half-naked child, brandishing a tee-shirt in one hand and a bagel in the other, trying to make the morning carpool to school and work? 

A harried a.m. rush can often set an agitated tone for the rest of the day, so what are parents to do?  While the pursuit of the perfect morning routine is a work in progress, these solutions to common problems should help you get back on on track.  But first, a few general suggestions:

  1. Plan ahead.  As Parent Coach Jennifer Watanabe suggests, kids do better when they feel involved in the rule-making and strategizing.  A week or so before school starts, sit everyone down and brainstorm ways to make the mornings run more smoothly.   Really listen to what your family has to say — kids are far more likely to cooperate with the agenda when they feel like they have a voice in formulating it.   
  2. No electronics in the bedroom.  This rule is especially important for older children to abide by, but kids of all ages can become too distracted by devices to sleep.  Good mornings begin at bedtime.    
  3. Get yourself ready first.  As in, before the kids wake up.  Perhaps easier said than done, but mornings are chaotic enough without trying to blow-dry your hair while overseeing the kids pack lunches, eat breakfast and gather their belongings.  

And now onto the potential problem areas:

Too tired for schoolStruggle #1:  Your child is too tired in the mornings.  

Why it might be happening: 
How is your bedtime routine?  If your family is anything like most, bedtimes typically progressively get later over the course of a school break.

What to do? A week or so before school starts, begin easing your bedtimes and reveilles back in the right direction.  Or if you're already back, start moving bedtime earlier right away.

Still not enough? Take your child to the store and let him pick out a special alarm clock.  Children thrill to making choices and while they may not have a choice about what time they wake up, they can at least have a choice about whether they wake up to a LEGO or a Dora alarm. You can also try giving him a 10-minute warning prior to the alarm sounding.   Gently wake him and turn on the light, saying, “It’s almost time to get up.”

Next: Struggle #2:  Your child wakes up too early.   

Up too earlyStruggle #2:  Your child wakes up too early. 

Why it might be happening: 
A young child has no idea what time it is.  To her, when it is light, it is morning.  This can be especially frustrating in summer when it gets light at 5 a.m. and your household is up with the birds.

What to do?  First off, a set of blackout curtains can do wonders.  Often, if a child wakes and it is still dark, she will simply fall back to sleep.  

Still not enough? Try a signal to let your child know when it is time to wake up.  There are many different ways to do this.  One mom I know slides a paper under the door of her kids’ room.  If they wake up and the paper is not there, they know it is still time to sleep.  Simple, free, effective.   

In our family, we use the OK to Wake clock.  This is a special clock that turns green (silently) when it is time to get up.  Or (for a cheaper solution) you could just plug a lamp into a digital outlet timer.   Your child may not get it at first.   The first few times she leaves her room before the signal, walk her back and wait with her.  Once she realizes how it works, you can just gently prompt her back to her room, saying “The light’s not green yet, I’ll see you in a few minutes.”  

Next: Struggle #3: Your child takes too much time getting dressed. 

Overwhelmed by clothing optionsStruggle #3: Your child takes too much time getting dressed.
Why it might be happening: Your child may have sensory issues with clothes or your child may be opinionated or he may just get easily distracted (a morning routine chart should help that).  

What to do?  Put your child in charge.  The night before, lay out two outfit options.  In the morning, your child can pick between them.  Deciding between two options is much less overwhelming than choosing from a whole closet full of options.  

Still not enough? If this is a persistent problem for your family, let your child sleep in his clean school clothes and skip the morning battle altogether!     

Next: Struggle #4: Your child expresses general anxiety about school.

Anxious boyStruggle #4: Your child expresses general anxiety about school. 

Why it might be happening:
  Kids fear the unknown.  Heck, we all do.  Change, even good change, can be scary and transitions can be especially hard for children of all ages.   

What to do? Make sure it is indeed general anxiety and not fear over a specific person or situation.  For general anxiety, your best bet is preparation.  Try to attend every “Meet Your Teacher” event and back-to-school orientation.  When you are at the school, take the time to wander about with your child.  Ensure he can get from his classroom to the restroom, gym, lunch room and library.  In the weeks before school starts, instead of tramping to the park, head to the school playground.  Make things as familiar as possible for your child.
Still not enough?  It can help to give your child some control about going to school.  In the Seattle school district, teachers receive two personal days a year, and your kid deserves them too.  Let him know that he has two days a year that he can stay home for no reason.   Often just knowing that he has an out helps ease the anxiety.  (Of course, you do have to pay attention and make sure the free days are not used to avoid test days).

Next: Struggle #5: Your child can’t seem to get through the morning routine without dawdling.

Routine chartStruggle #5: Your child can’t seem to get through the morning routine without dawdling.  

Why it could be happening: 
Ahhh, dawdling ... the bane of a frenzied mom.  The truth is that there are many reasons why kids dawdle and lose focus.   The most likely and common is just becoming distracted.  

What to do?  Clearly define your morning routine. Create a simple list of get-ready steps.   Ideally, you should come up with this list as a family.  Once you have your list, add check boxes.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  I use a dollar store frame and dry erase markers (similar to this) but do what works for your family.   Use your child’s favorite character, and let her color the pictures.  The more involved she is in the process, the more successful the chart will be.   Feeling overwhelmed by the process?  There are plenty of free routine chart versions available online.  Just make sure you can tailor a solution to suit your family’s needs.  (See related article, 8 Crafty Routine Charts for Chores, Bedtime, Out the Door and More)

Once you have your chart, explain to your child that every item must be checked off before she can play or have screen time.  Eventually, having time to play after finishing the checklist will be its own reward. 

Still not enough? You may need to add a small incentive (like a quick game or stickers) to induce completion of the checklist.  You could also try setting a timer.  Racing the clock often speeds up dawdlers and turns the routine into a game of sorts.   

If things seem to be getting worse... Remember, any time you make changes in your parenting routine, your child’s behavior is likely to get worse before it gets better.  This is technically called an “extinction burst” — your child is trying to do more of what worked for her in the past.  Hang in there.  An extinction burst means you are on the right track and things will get better.  

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