Morning Mayhem: Getting Out the Door with Kids

If there was one common experience in parenting it would be the morning dance of the frazzled parent and the child moving at a snail’s pace. It seems the more urgent a parent is with their request to hurry, the slower a child’s feet and hands are inclined to get dressed, eat, and even walk. Some kids even pull out the full stop and fall down, going ‘boneless.’

One day I looked at my daughter shuffling her feet to the car and I couldn’t help but think that if there was a chocolate waiting in her seat, she would be running at light speed. Even getting her out of the car could elicit the same resistant response. With eyes closed she told me one day, “I can’t get out of my seat, I’m sleeping.”

If there was one thing that makes the morning a mess it would be the resistance of a child and a parent’s fervent persistence to get them to hurry. The nagging, yelling, bribe wielding, consequence driven madness of a parent desperate to get out of the house can leave everyone on the edge. I am sure if cortisol swabs were taken, stress hormones would be significantly higher in everyone, including the pets.

Is there an easier way to surviving the morning routine? The good news is yes, but it won’t be without an adult seizing the lead and figuring out where the impasse comes from and how to steer through it.

Some things to consider …

  1. Parents have agendas and kids often have completely different ones. While a parent needs to get to work or a child to school – that child may not want to go to school. Sometimes they are avoiding getting ready because they are they having a hard time separating from a parent, they might just want to play and not work, or they are fighting with a friend and want to avoid the turmoil altogether. When you can make sense of what is underneath their resistance and help them through it, things may naturally start to go a little smoother in the morning.

  2. Parents can’t lead kids who do not follow them – and not just in the morning. If is generally difficult to get a child to attend to the rules, to do as requested, or to take their cues from adults then the issue may not a ‘morning’ one but a relationship one. A child who is not attached to a parent or has moved into a position of dominance over them (coined as an ‘alpha child,’ by Gordon Neufeld), is often to difficult to lead and mornings can be a struggle. Alpha kids are often bossy, commanding, or can feign helplessness in order to orchestrate their parent’s actions. They are allergic to being told what to do leading to morning battles and the escalation of yelling and threats by their parents. For more information on the alpha problem see Chapter 5 in Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers or the Alpha Children Course through the Neufeld Institute. Until the relationship problem has been addressed, a child will not readily follow their adult’s wishes in the morning.

  1. Humans are hardwired with a natural instinct to resist when feeling coerced. The harder someone pushes their agenda on us, the more likely the counterwill instinct will be activated leading to a push back on their agenda. Young children, starting around 2 ½ years, can grow increasingly resistant to being hurried or moved along. The more their ‘own mind’ starts to develop, the more ideas they have about what they would like to do and when. A child’s agenda at this age often conflicts with the wishes of their adults but is indicative that healthy development is underway. The only thing that makes a child want to do as told, follow the rules, or make things work for their parent, is by being actively attached to the adult who is giving them the orders.

Three Strategies to Quell Morning Mayhem

  1. Orient them Talking to kids the night before and filling them in on what will happen the following day can help ease into the morning routine. Kids typically love to be told “the plan for the day” and it can help orient them as much as draw off their resistance. A child’s reaction to the plan can alert a parent to the parts they find hard or are not in favour of.

  2. Solicit good intentions – When you tell a child the plan for the next day you can follow this up by soliciting their good intentions. This means specifically asking them, “can I count on you get dressed, to come for breakfast, and to do your part to make tomorrow morning work?” If there is resistance to the plan, it will likely appear at this time giving a parent an opportunity to address it. By soliciting a child’s good intentions you are trying to enlist cooperation and to get them onside in making things work, while leaving some room to figure out where there might be challenges to this.  When or if they start to resist the plan the following morning, the parent can remind them of their discussion and their commitment, while also acknowledging that we all have good intentions that are sometimes hard to realize.

  1. Collect and engage the attachment instincts- When a child is attached to a parent it should provoke instincts to follow, obey, want to please, measure up, and take their cues from them. Kids, especially young ones, will struggle to listen to people who have not collected their attachment instincts first. Collecting a child means finding your way to their side, trying to engage their eyes, and feel a sense of warmth or connection between you. After a child has been asleep or playing, their attachment instincts may not be directed at the parent and engaged. If a parent tries to give the child orders, they will be met with resistance because the counterwill instinct will be stronger than their attachment instinct. Collecting a child means warming up the relationship in the morning by reading to them, cuddling, or taking time to chat. One father used to wake up and collect his kids by giving them a math question!

The good news is that when a morning has slid sideways, there is still plenty of opportunity to do it better – tomorrow is indeed a new day. In fact, some off our best parenting moments come from realizing when something isn’t working and needs to change. Sometimes it is us who needs to change and sometimes we need to work on others to change. What is for sure is that if anyone can change the trajectory and tone of a morning – it is the parent. This is not usually done in the heat of the moment but upon reflection in the guilt ridden remainder of the day following the frazzled morning.


Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Founder of Kid’s Best Bet, Counselling and Family Resource Centre, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). For more information please see or