As a psychologist who specializes in helping families, one of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that their morning routine with their kids is miserable. Too often parents find themselves becoming frustrated, and even yelling at their kids in the rush to get everyone dressed, fed, packed up, and out the door on time each weekday morning. If you are struggling with the morning routine, know that you are not alone. It is a time of day ripe with pitfalls. Parents feel intense pressure to get their kids to school on time with their homework, a healthy lunch, and anything else they need to be ready for the day. Especially in winter with all the extra winter gear kids need, just getting out the door can be overwhelming. Most families these days have two working parents which means both parents are likely also trying to get to work on time. It is no wonder parents and children struggle so much with the morning routine.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
First, let’s start with the assumption that children want to do well. I know it may not always feel this way, but it is the truth. Children want to please the adults in their lives, and they want to do well. When they are struggling to follow directions or acting “defiant” it is not because they are trying to be difficult, or that they don’t respect you. When a child is acting out it is a signal that something is getting in their way. They may be hungry, tired, worried, confused, or stressed. They may be picking up on your feelings of stress or frustration and amplifying them. The trick is to identify what is getting in their way and find ways to provide scaffolding to allow them to be successful.
Take away: If the morning is not going well, the difficulty level is likely too high. Bring down the difficulty level until your morning routine is successful and then slowly raise the bar.
Breaking the negative cycle
If your family has gotten into a negative cycle where every morning ends in yelling or tears, every member of the family is probably starting each day off stressed and anticipating things going poorly. When you are all starting off on the wrong foot it is nearly impossible to have a good morning.
Transform your Morning
Step 1: Family Meeting
Start off with a family meeting where you all talk about the morning routine.
Sit down together and share how you each feel in the morning, and what you wish you could feel instead. Depending on the age of your children they may be able to tell you specifics or just let you know that the morning feels “bad.” The important part is that they feel included and their feelings are acknowledged. Avoid blaming or shaming in this conversation. Just acknowledge that things have not been going well in the morning and set the goal for the family that you all want this to improve.
Acknowledge where you have messed up. Say things like “I have gotten frustrated some mornings and yelled at you. I am sorry. I can see that my yelling scared you and didn’t help the morning go better. I am going to work hard to have the mornings go better for all of us.”
Step 2: Create a game plan
Talk through the changes you are going to make and let everyone know how they can help to make the mornings go more smoothly. Children want the day to start off well just as much as you do. They just have no idea how to change things. Involve them in the process and you will be surprised by how much things can shift. See the ideas at the end of this article to help you make your game plan.
Step 3: Implement changes and transform your morning
Remember, the main goal is to bring the difficulty level way down to start. Focus on shifting the morning from a stressful power struggle into a playful, positive experience for everyone. Initially, most of the work will be on the parents to set to tone and stay positive. Over time, your children will start to get into the flow, and everyone will feel more positive.
Step 4: After a week or two, check back in and reevaluate
Give these changes a week or two and then have another family meeting. Sit down together and talk about what is working and what is still tricky. Ask the children for their input and ideas. Start with lots of praise for the things that are working and then focus on collaborative problem solving to figure out what you need to try next. Perhaps you only tried one or two of the ideas listed below. That is a great start! Now go back to the idea list and see what you can add this week. There is no need to change everything at once. Just do what you can do today, and then stick with it. Eventually you will figure out what works for your family.
Step 5: Stick with it and repeat as needed
Remember, consistency is the key to success. Stick with the plan and keep working at it until you are successful. Once your family is in a positive cycle you will likely need to do less and less to make the morning go well.
Tips for Transforming your morning
Try This: Why save for tomorrow what you can do right now?
Move the work of the morning earlier, usually to the night before. Try packing lunches and backpacks the night before, laying out clothes before bedtime, and making sure boots, hats, gloves, and coats are all in one location and easy for the children to access.
Try This: Cut out the nagging with songs and signs
Instead of reminding your child 10 times to brush their teeth, make a sign with them to tape up on their bathroom mirror with a “morning list” and “bedtime list” or tasks to do in the bathroom. For younger children, add a picture or drawing of the task to help them remember. You can also make up little songs for morning and bedtime tasks to make the reminding feel more fun.
Make a sign to put near the front door with a checklist of the things they need to be ready to go. Include them in the design and creation of the sign, use colorful markers and let them decorate it. A simple list with checkboxes can do wonders for making the morning go more smoothly. Instead of nagging them to go get their lunch, you can ask them to “check the sign” and let you know if they are ready. With practice your child will be able to tell you what is missing. You can make this into a game instead of a power struggle.
Try This: Move bedtime up
Going to bed a bit earlier (start with 20 minutes earlier) can also help everyone be more rested in the morning. You may need to move up the time everyone wakes up if after these changes you still do not have enough time to get ready.
Try This: Manage hunger and dehydration
Making sure your children eat and drink before school is incredibly important. For their brains to function well they need nutritious food and water. Have a plan for breakfast that is simple and nutritious and make sure they drink a glass of water before school.
Try This (important!): Manage your morning stress
The biggest hurdle to improving the morning is usually parental stress.
Your stress impacts your children. Children tend to be incredibly good at picking up on the negative emotions of the adults in their lives, and pretty bad at identifying the cause of these feelings. Most children assume that all negative emotions in adults are directed at and caused by them. If you are stressed about a big presentation at work and snap at your child, he is unlikely to guess that your irritation is not about him. He will assume you are mad at him and would be surprised to know you are stressed about something else.
Managing your stress is the most important thing you can do for your children. One easy thing to do is to build in some self-care time into your morning. You may need to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier in order to accomplish this. Even 20 extra minutes can be a game changer. If you get up and know you have 20 minutes to yourself before you must be in “parent mode” it can change your entire day. You can use that time to meditate, journal, exercise, drink tea or coffee and read, or anything that feels good to you. This is not extra time to work! This is self-care time for you to set yourself up for a successful, low stress day and to set your children up for a good start to their day.
Managing your stress is a big part of helping the day go more smoothly, and to some degree stress is unavoidable. One simple thing you can do when you find yourself stressed even after your self-care time is to stop and fill them in. Let them know in clear language that you are preoccupied about something you are worried about at work and that you are not angry with them. You can even enlist their help saying, “Today I am feeling really stressed about a big presentation I have at work, can you two please help me out a little extra this morning so we can all start the day off well?” Telling them how they can help allows your child to feel competent. Saying, “It would help me feel less stressed if you could give me a hug or tell me some encouraging words” allows your child to know how you are feeling and what they can do to comfort you.
Remember: you can do this!