Toddler is code name for independent. And as you well know dressing is one of those areas where this independence asserts itself. While getting dressed is something you want “them" to do, your toddler may have different ideas. There is usually some looming time constraint, and your patience is wearing thin with the pressure to get out the door. This is a perfect scenario to trigger your toddler's autonomy button (AKA really-important-idea-to-mommy-so-must-rebel-against-it button!)
Here are some tips to keep it on the fun side!
- Engage them in the process. For the younger toddler: The good old fashioned, “Where’s Janey’s hand?, Where’s Janey’s hand?, There’s Janey’s hand!” can work wonders! Describe every body part and even sub body parts (toes, ankles, knees) to make it all that much more interesting - helping your toddler forget this was ever your idea in the first place! For the older toddler: Holding up their pants ask, “Should we put your head in this hole? NO! Your arms in these holes? NO!" The key is to be relaxed and to move the toddler out of the resistance mode and into an enjoyable experience (maybe even playful bonding moment) for both of you!
- Give them choices, but not too many. For the younger toddler: Ask, “Should we put your shirt on first or your pants on first?” Remember too many choices can actually overwhelm a child and make her feel anxious that she has to make too many decisions for herself. For the older toddler: Older toddlers may want to chose what they will wear - I encourage parents to let this be a place for creative expression and autonomy - even if it means mismatched clothes. Set limits around weather-appropriate clothes and changing-outfits like, “Oh you picked this outfit already but I see you want to change your mind - let’s put this in a special place so we can remember to wear this other outfit tomorrow.”
- Get dressed in motion. A mom once shared this strategy with me in one of our workshops and I thought it was brilliant-especially for the younger toddler. Put each part of the outfit in a different room and have the child run to each room to find each article of clothing! Daniel Siegel, M.D. writes in "The Whole Brain Child" that movement is often key to getting children out of resistance mode and into the cooperative mode - this mom was really onto something!
- Set a timer. Let’s see if we can get dressed by the time this timer goes beep beep beep (or quack, quack, quack... thank you smartphone). Children love little challenges like this to keep things moving. Be careful not offer a reward if it happens (such as a sticker or a treat) as usually children are satisfied enough by the game itself and the rewards can backfire when the child is old enough to say, “That’s ok I don’t want a sticker today!"
- Sing A Song. When all else fails, turn getting dressed into a song (or any other resisted activity!). Try this one (to the tune of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush) or make up your own, “This is the way we put on our socks, put on our socks, put on our socks, this is the way we put on our socks so early in the morning!”
The key in all these strategies is encouraging cooperation without getting into a power struggle. In this way we set limits and stay in control (as opposed to letting our children go out naked, or staying home because it’s just too hard) while encouraging autonomy and independence (something you will be thankful for when they are 30 and not living a home!) Learn more about your child’s development, strategies for striking that balance, and more at your local Early Childhood Matters workshops!