Ask Teacher Lisa: Managing Morning Meltdowns

Managing Morning Meltdowns

Dear Teacher Lisa,

Our 2 year old is having complete meltdowns over getting dressed in the morning – it’s not a fun way for any of us to start our day! I am trying to stay calm and walk her through it, but it’s not easy. That said, I am also still trying to set boundaries around her reaction to it, but she just doesn’t want to hear it.

As you know, I’m pregnant with our 2nd child, and I’m not sure exactly how she is processing everything (though it doesn’t seem to come out in direct ways). Could this be related?

Any advice will help!

Just Want a Little Peace in the Morning

Dear A Little Peace,

This all seems pretty age appropriate. If possible, I would try to talk with her the day before to make a plan for the morning. Is it that she doesn’t want to dress herself? Or she doesn’t like any of the options/nothing goes right?

If it’s wanting help, I would go ahead and give some help (maybe compromise) and that could be about her reverting back to being a baby a bit in anticipation of losing that relationship with you.

If it’s the latter issue of nothing being right, then the planning ahead could really help. Maybe pick out the outfit the day before and lay out all the accessories. You could do a little picture schedule on the wall of her (smiling) at each stage.

Step 1: Picture of her with her undies on…”Put on undies.”

Step 2: Picture of her with her shirt on…”Put on shirt.” etc. until she is fully dressed.

You could end the chart with a high five or something fun she enjoys like choosing a favorite song to dance to before heading out the door. Try to find ways to make it fun for her as well, so it doesn’t feel like a chore. Kids don’t like being told what to do–they like feeling powerful, playful, independent and important, so any of those vibes you could tap into would be good.

With another parent who was having a similar issue, she was saying that nothing about the breakfast goes right and her son goes ballistic. I was thinking that was due to morning grumps, wanting control and autonomy, and the rush/stress of getting out of the house. I suggested to her to make a book about “B’s Breakfast” or make a little velcro picture mat with the different elements of breakfast to stick on and off that kind of gives him a way to process and make it how he likes it to look even if he can’t control the real breakfast sometimes because the honey won’t come out (or whatever it might be!).

It could be fun to do something similar for N if it’s the little details of dressing that are wearing her down (no pun intended, haha). You could do a picture of her in her undies with velcro spots to stick on different outfits, so she can do all the trying on the velcro and not on herself. Or a book “N’s Getting Dressed Book.” It could be about feelings and hiccups along the way, but it could also be about the process.

Also, allowing yourself some extra time in the morning so you can be present and not stressed is helpful. I find it is when I am most stressed and rushed that things go worst in the morning, whereas if I have all my stuff ready and I’m relaxed, I can help the kids more.

You’ve got this,

Teacher Lisa

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Ask Teacher Lisa Blog: Sibling battles

Dear Teacher Lisa,

I’ve got 3 amazing boys, so, as you can imagine, my hands are full.

My baby is easy, but my 2 year old and 5 year old need constant supervision because the minute I turn my back on them, they break out into fights. And I mean FIGHTS…as in, throw down, fists flying fights.

The thing is, I know my boys are lovers – truly sensitive and wonderful human beings that I’m so proud to have birthed into this world – but it’s as if they lose their minds around each other, and I’m struggling to keep my cool.

I want to help my boys and help our whole family by doing so; but what can I do when it seems all they know how to do is fight?


Mama Not a Referee

Dear Mama,

Phew, so sibling issues are complex, let’s face it. Here are some ideas to try to minimize the battles.

1)    Special time for each child – I know it may be hard, but carving out some special time alone with each of your children can do wonders to build your connection with them. This will help in moments of tension or conflict, because you will both feel more connected, willing to see other points of view and work together more lovingly. It doesn’t have to be a full day, but even 30 minutes a week or 10 minutes a day when you put the other kids down or in an enclosed safe space, or send them for playdates or with another caregiver. Having one on one particularly with the oldest sibling who may miss that attention the most, can work wonders. You two can share in lamenting the challenges of the youngers and how much you love them but they also drive you crazy. You can focus on the oldest child and something they would like to do with you. If their cup is full and they are secure in their connection to you, this may help them have more empathy and patience for the younger children in those difficult moments. You can also strategize together in these calm times about what to do about some of the things that bother your oldest. Ask them what makes them the most mad and if they have any ideas of what might help.

2)    Create separate safe spaces at home – There should be a space for your oldest child to retreat to if they need to be alone or protect their toys, bodies, projects, etc. Hype that up with your oldest child. Common zone is for everyone, but this space is theirs alone. Hold that line for your oldest child, so they know you have their back. Have them keep anything precious there. As your younger children get older, they will need some spaces defined for them as well. Having separate toy boxes can also be helpful. Have your older child pick out the items that are just theirs and they are in charge of keeping them in that box when they are not in use. Likewise, the younger child(ren) should have a box of things that are just for them. Anything else is fair game.

3)    Spend time apart – The relationship between your siblings will have rough patches and smooth ones. When you are in a rough patch, accept that this may be a learning stretch. Work through conflicts as they arise and use your toolbox of nonviolent communication and conflict resolution, BUT… help them spend some time apart! These learning periods can be overwhelming and exhausting for the whole family. Give them (and yourself) breaks by sending your older kid to school or playdates or outings. Experiment with some playdates or babysitting for your younger child(ren) as well. They may need time to spread their wings independently without dealing with sib dynamics 24/7. You may find they return refreshed and more appreciative of the family.

4)    Don’t try to change their feelings – Your older child in particular may express things in unsavory terms. Don’t take it personally. As Heather Shumaker says in her book It’s Okay Not to Share, “Go ahead and let them hate the baby.” It’s the behavior that you can place limits on, not the feelings. If their words are hurting the younger siblings’ feelings, they can write it down, or shout it in their room, or tell it to you alone. If they are using hurtful words towards you, accept it as an expression of feelings. Don’t take it to heart, but wonder about what needs or feelings might be underneath it. If they are aggressive, they need to be stopped and separated. There can be natural consequences if you don’t feel safe doing a certain activity because of their behavior. Ultimately, we want to give our children space to have their feelings about their family life, however much we may not like what they are expressing. If they are able to get it out and feel heard, they may be less likely to take it out physically on each other. Maybe you can start a tradition of everyone sharing “roses and thorns” at the end of each day (one positive thing, one negative thing). Be careful when you are sharing your own parental frustrations not to blame or place judgement on your children (i.e. don’t call them mean), but you can share that you had a feeling as a result of something that went down (i.e. you felt sad and mad when the kids were hitting each other in the backseat, because you want them both to be safe).  

5)    Try to collaborate and plan in times of calm – When you are all in a calm state, debrief with your older child and plan ahead. Come up with things they can do or strategies they might use when they are SO MAD! Put together a regulatory box with their help. Maybe a lego to build, a favorite book to read, some water balloons to smash, papers to tear up, a pillow to hit or boxing gloves and a pad, something to cut up, silly putty to stretch, gum to chew, headphones with favorite music to listen to, some slime to mix up, a stretchy fidget to hold, a chewy necklace to bite on, fake poop to throw, ice to chew (you could just put a picture of that in the box and get it out at the time it’s needed)… you name it. You and your child can come up with a list of things that would work better than hitting, scratching, kicking, etc. their sibling. If they need a strong physical release to feel better, you might make a plan that they do it with you or another trusted adult, i.e. push mom over as hard as you can (in a safe space), crash into Teacher Lisa with an exercise mat, have a pillow fight, etc. These strategies might not work overnight, but if you practice reminding them of these options in the moment they are getting flooded with their sibling, it will empower them to know that a) you accept and understand their big feelings, but not their behavior, b) they have choices of how to deal with the big feelings they experience, and c) you are there to help remind them of those options and support them through the process.

It’s obviously harder to communicate and set these types of things up with 2-year-olds than 5-year-olds, but you can start simple with them and redirect their aggression to playful roughhousing with you, or another activity.

6)    Find the sweet spot – If there are activities that the two enjoy together, build off of those and add on. Or find ways to bridge mutual interests. You just may find some silver linings in there.

7)    Self care – Take some time for yourself doing whatever makes you feel good (coffee with a friend, a quiet walk, a trip to the spa, a nap/bath, a night out on the town). This may seem counter intuitive when the household feels like it’s falling apart, but filling your tank can work wonders for your patience in those stressful moments. The energy of each member of the family affects the others, so bring your most positive spirit and see if you can’t chip away a little at the monster energy.

8)    Sense of humor – Laugh when the dust settles, and write down the stories. It will all be different in 6 months, and different again 6 months after that. This parenting thing is a wild ride, and it goes better when you can stop to laugh (and cry).

9)    Lean on your community – Text or email your community anytime for support or to vent, and arrange to spend time together. Strength in numbers!

Big hugs to you and those sweet boys,

Teacher Lisa

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Ask Teacher Lisa: Reconnecting After a New Baby is Born

Dear Teacher Lisa,

Even though it’s exhausting with a newborn at home, I know I have so much to be grateful for with two healthy kids…and yet, I find myself grieving what our lives were like before our son was born and it was just the three of us.

I try to connect with my eldest in all of the ways we used to, but we just don’t seem to have the same relationship as before, and I’m not sure how exactly to find a new way of being a family together.

Given your experience with your own family, as well as what you’ve seen with all of the families at The Garden over the years, do you have any advice as to how I can find my way?


Wanting to Reconnect

Dear Wanting,

Here’s my two cents: seeking out new ways to connect is the key, because the old ways you connected may no longer be relevant.

In the process of becoming increasingly pregnant and having to focus on taking care of your body and slowing down, your relationship with your older child was already evolving. Then once the new baby arrived, it shifted even further. You now have a new baby bundle that consumes your physical energy (though your older child may still dominate your mental sphere) requiring snuggling/carrying, nursing, and depriving you of sleep.

Your older child is also growing and changing and may alternately long for the good old days when they were the baby and also feel happy to be the big kid, independent and interested in exploring new adventures and connections. Don’t be surprised if your child moves back and forth between these two states, especially as the baby changes and becomes more of their own person. Try to honor any feelings as they come up and give your child opportunities to express them.

You may feel unsure of how to connect with your older child. Your role with your younger child is clear and dominates. You may feel a sense of loss with your older child—your family dynamic has shifted leaving the two of you more distant. Don’t let these feeling get you down. This is a big transition requiring adjustments all around, and many positives will come out of all of this.

I would suggest carving out a weekly special time with your older child. Tell them that you want to prioritize this time with them every week when the two of you will do something on your own that is fun for both of you. You can talk about how although you love having Baby as a part of the family, you miss having time just the two of you so you are going to put it on the weekly calendar. This reminds your older child of how much you still love them, and also lets them know it’s okay to have a range of feelings about their younger sibling. Maybe you have a weekly ice cream date when you debrief about the week. Maybe you go for a pony ride. Maybe you play her favorite pretend play game without any interruptions. What you do is not that important, as long as you make a point to do it regularly. I would not recommend building it around a physical gift, but rather the gift of quality time spent together. In this way, you will build new bonds with your older child and get to know what their evolving interests are and how to grow together.  

In time, your family will find a new rhythm, and as the baby grows you will once again be able to divide your physical energy more equally between your children.

Sending love,

Teacher Lisa

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Ask Teacher Lisa: How to support a 3 year old who can’t make up her mind

Dear Teacher Lisa,

Our 3 year old has been especially challenging us lately, and it seems to come up every day in the most routine activities. For example, when it’s time to eat we have an agreement that she must wash her hands before a meal. We always give her the choice to have either mom or dad help her, and after seemingly making her choice, she’ll start to play what we call the “yes/no” game by saying “yes, I’m ready,” then running away and saying “no, I’m not” as soon as we come into the bathroom to help her. This back and forth usually ends in tears after we decide to take a break from the drama and try to walk away (at which point she says “yes, yes I DO want to wash my hands!”).

We recognize that she is going through a lot developmentally and that she is probably already hungry (and maybe even tired) by the time we need to wash hands to eat, but we feel like we’re at a loss as to how to help her through these daily activities without all of us losing our minds. What can we do to give her choices without it turning into a poorly played game?

Tired of Playing the Yes/No Game

Dear Tired,

So, here’s the thing. A disregulated 3-year-old is not physically capable of making decisions. So rather than viewing this as a “yes/no game,” I would view it as a situation in which your child is incapable of making decisions, and she needs you to make the decision for her based on what you feel best meets her needs in the moment. And if it doesn’t matter for her needs, then decide based on your needs.

For example, if she DOES need her diaper changed, BUT is saying “yes/no” about Daddy doing it, then you decide who does it and stick to it. She may cry the first few times you try this, but often kids will feel better in the security of knowing you are going to help them decide and take care of them if they can’t handle things on their own. 

I view this similarly to when parents are departing from school, assuming the child feels secure in their school environment. Kids may have a lot of feelings about this separation, but will ultimately benefit if you make the call and they know it’s decided and they can move on to the next thing…even if they have some feelings to process along the way. The certainty of you deciding helps and instills confidence that the situation is under control. You don’t want to get into a yo-yo pattern, because it might just become habit. 

Choices are great for during the day when she is not tired and it is something that she can truly choose–apple or orange? But the big stuff should be decided by the parents, and the little stuff too if it’s a time when you know she will be tired (or you can lay it out in advance to give her a choice at a time when she is more regulated–i.e. Tonight do you want to use the new bubble gum toothpaste or the old mint? Let’s lay it out this morning, so it will be ready for us tonight!).

A visual cue can be immensely helpful to a child who needs support in processing the expectations of the day, and one simple way to create this is through a daily “calendar” where you can stick images on to outline the activities for the day. This is a great opportunity as well to offer choices – find a moment when she is well-rested and fed, and then let her pick one or two of the big activities for the coming day.

Another possibility is that she is clinging to the yes/no in these moments, because she has a need for some power and control. I would find other ways to give her this during the day. Maybe you do play a “yes/no game” during the day that is very silly like “Yes, I should put this stinky sock on my head??” That way she has opportunities for power in play, but when it comes to the routine there is a structure that is adhered to. And then you can all focus on playing the games that are a little more fun for everyone :).

Teacher Lisa

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Ask Teacher Lisa: When your son loves dresses and other expressions of gender identity

“Dear Teacher Lisa,

My 3 year old son is fascinated by makeup and swirly dresses, as I’m sure many 3 year old boys and girls are. I fully support his play and have even bought a dress and tutu for his dress-up area, but I find my parents and husband are more hesitant to encourage this kind of play as they are afraid he’s going to get bullied either now or as he gets older for playing with “girls’ things.”

Recognizing that we don’t live in a world that is always tolerant of those who behave or express themselves differently, do you have any advice as to how I can acknowledge their concerns, while still teaching our son that it’s more than ok to explore what’s most fun for him, no matter how sparkly it might be?

Thank you,

Mom making peace with sequins”

Dear Mom Making Peace with Sequins,

Thank you for your thoughtful message. I believe that following your own child’s lead is always the key. If a child shows no interest in playing with make up or wearing sparkly dresses, we don’t need to push them to do so. If they are drawn to this, then by all means, support that exploration. Dressing up in all its forms is a very alluring childhood activity and doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about a child’s gender identity. Allowing our children to explore different sides of themselves and different interests helps them figure out preferences, feel confident that they are not defined by their clothing or external appearance alone, and secure that we love them no matter what.

Childhood is a time of exploration and curiosity. Parental resistance to allowing them to explore will only serve to create a power struggle that can lead on the one hand to a lack of self-confidence and submission to our control, or on the other hand anger and defiance. When we allow a child to explore freely, we are also teaching them to be accepting of others who do the same. On the flip side, if a child has been told at home that they cannot have long hair because they are a boy, when they see a boy with long hair in the community, they may tell this child that is wrong.

A 2-3 year old will not be able to engage in deep philosophical discussion with you about why or why not they may wear sparkles. I encourage you to let your child be free, and surround yourself with people whom you feel will be supportive. If your family members are skeptical and concerned, I don’t recommend arguing with them. Engage with them with empathy for why they feel the way they do. See if you can come to a place of compromise that allows your child time and space to explore, but also helps other family members feel comfortable. Let them know it is important to you that your child doesn’t feel any stigma or shame around their curiosity. You are building your own family values during these early years of your child’s life—it’s natural that you and your partner or extended families bring different perspectives and will need to discuss those to make joint decisions. You may have limits about wearing shoes or pajamas when going out for example, and if you or other family members are worried about public perception, you could set similar limits around sparkly attire, perhaps designating it as a “home outfit.” If by chance you were to encounter someone outside the family who questioned your child’s right to wear sparkles, you might playfully narrate for your child, “In our home, we decide for ourselves what we feel like wearing. Some days we feel sparkly!”

As your child ages, you will be able to talk to them more thoughtfully about what different people think about who wears what and why and ask their opinion. If our aim is to teach our children to think critically and be accepting of others, what better way than to start to break down why Grandma might feel the way she does about boys and make-up or why Daddy might be worried about bullying? Raising children who feel free to explore but can also understand the perspectives of others might just make the world a little more sparkly.

Shine on,

Teacher Lisa

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