Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How to Get a Difficult Preschooler Dressed In the Morning

A parent recently sent me this message looking for help. “My biggest parenting struggle these days is getting my son dressed in the morning. He’s four and lately it has turned into a huge battle every morning. We’ve tried telling him we’ll read a story with him if he gets dressed on time. We’ve tried setting a timer and he gets a sticker if he’s dressed before it goes off (with rewards after a certain # of stickers). We talked to his pediatrician, who suggested taking him to school in his pajamas if he refused to put his clothes on–but he loved it! He’s normally a very sweet, cooperative guy (and getting ready for bed is so calm). I’m not sure what’s happening here or how to get out of this power struggle.”

Children crave “reconnecting” with the parent(s) in the morning after being apart overnight (this also happens after school).  Parents are more successful if they spend 10 – 20 minutes in an activity with the child that makes the child feel important and special.  The parent should refrain from speaking and let the child do all the talking.  It can even mean just eating breakfast with the child and asking him open ended questions.  A visual timer should be set, not audible.  Audible timers and sticker charts don’t work for the most part.  Plus the sticker charts become tiresome to maintain.  Preschoolers live only in the moment and have great difficulty seeing ahead to the collection of stickers.  If the child isn’t allowed to reconnect with the primary parent, then he will attempt to get that need met by running away from getting dressed or doing the opposite of what the parent wants him to do.  In other words, avoiding what the parent wants him to do is his way of getting that connection through attention and feeling powerful.

The parent can lay out two different outfits for the boy and let him pick which one he wants to wear.  This will make him feel valuable and powerful and reduce the chances that he will initiate a power struggle.  If the child asks for a different outfit from the two that mom laid out, mom should just calmly restate the original options one more time.  If he won’t pick, the parent can say “You pick or mommy will pick for you,” and then follow through if necessary.

If the parent is already doing all of the above, then the pediatrician’s suggestion of bringing the child to school in his pajamas is a good one.  But in order to make this work, it’s important to get the school to work with the parent by creating the requirement that the child cannot enter the classroom until he is completely dressed.  This means that the parent must bring the change of clothes in a bag and hand the child and the bag over to a teacher, and then leave.  It will be up to the “receiving” teacher to lay down the rule for the child and remain with him (outside of the classroom) until he dresses himself.  The teacher should also refrain from showing any emotion (such as frustration) or speaking to the child.  It’s important to note that this works because children often behave the worst only in the presence of the mother!

Preschoolers LOVE when they have the power to make adults react.  If the parent is getting worked up over the child not putting on his clothes, such as yelling, scolding, reminding, etc., the child will love this.  Therefore the parent must remain completely calm and silent so as not to give the child a reason to avoid getting dressed.  The parent must behave as if it doesn’t even bother her and just be ready to leave.

Bill Corbett is the author of the award-winning parenting book series, LOVE, LIMITS, & LESSONS: A PARENT'S GUIDE TO RAISING COOPERATIVE KIDS (in English and in Spanish) and the executive producer and host of the public access television show CREATING COOPERATIVE KIDS ( As a member of the American Psychological Association and the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology, Bill provides parent coaching and keynote presentations to parent and professional audiences across the country. He sits on the board of the Network Against Domestic Abuse, the Resource Advisory Committee for Attachment Parenting International, and the management team of the Springfield Parent Academy. Bill's practical experience comes as a father of 3 grown children, a grandfather of two, and a stepdad to three.  You can learn more about his work at and


  1. I am a grandma now and just spent a week babysitting for my 3 grandkids while their mom recuperated from her 4th birth. The morning with one of them reminded me what is was like getting my kids up and out in the mornings. I actually took my son who was 3 to his playgroup in his pajamas once. He never gave me a hard time getting dressed after that

  2. Thank you for reading Faigie, and thank you for sharing that story. In most cases, all it takes is just one time to follow through and it works. Those who won't go that far are too afraid to give it a try. Sounds like you're a great grandma! Keep up the great work!

  3. I was trying to text more but got cut off. One follow through instead of empty threats would solve this for many kids, pinned.


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