I am standing at the garage door, breathing deeply and trying to remember that this is a phase. There's a red sock and a striped sock, a purple tutu over a tie-dyed shirt and my son is carrying his sister's sandals. I can deal with the colorful ensemble, but it's cold and wet outside. We're 20 minutes into me pleading for him to get his sneakers on. We are late for preschool. Again.
I am too exhausted over the battle to cry, this being week four of The War of Dressing. Why has this become such a fight? Is it just me?
It's not just you, mama. There's a reason your child is fighting getting dressed in the morning. This battle is as universal as it is draining. Toddlers go through "Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt," a stage of development coined by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson.
In his Theory of Psychosocial Development, each stage of life is associated with a psychological struggle that contributes to a major aspect of personality. In this particular stage, a child either learns to master the skills, becoming confident and having a strong sense of self, or, the theory predicts, that if children don't have enough space for independence, they can feel shame and begin to doubt their abilities.
Toddlers arrive at this point of awareness about personal control because their brains have developed enough to realize that they are their own person, which makes them have an interest in their bodies. In an American Psychological Association study, there is a certain order of behaviors associated with the development of self-concept in toddlers:
- Physical self-recognition: Understand they have a body and it is theirs
- Self-description: Observe and evaluate what they see about themselves
- Emotional responses: React to their actions and surroundings
So how does it connect to that morning battle? Toddlers are exploring the limits of their personal control so it's no wonder they have some pretty big feelings about it. This trifecta creates a perfect storm for big feelings, or as we know it: tantrums.
Getting dressed is a fundamental marker of independence for a toddler. In Montessori Life, a quarterly magazine by the American Montessori Society, Montessori expert Stephanie Woo explains, "Independence is the ability to do something by yourself without being a burden to others. Independence cannot be given; it is developed internally, built over time and predicated on abilities. Each new skill makes new levels of independence possible. Every time a child masters something, that mastery leads to new possibilities."
But it's one thing to understand this, and another thing to deal with it in the moment and maintain harmony. "It's built into toddlers and preschoolers that they can be autonomous," says Sally Beville Hunter, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "The problem is they're not especially capable of rational decision-making." So even if they can dress themselves (sort of 😳), they still need help in making choices about what they should wear, or narrowing down all of their options.
Here's how to get your child to get dressed (without the battle)
Julia King, co-author of How to Talk so LITTLE Kids Will Listen says one strategy is to give a child all the information so they get to decide what to do, giving them the independence they crave and the opportunity to grow in their abilities.
Three simple steps in the right direction can make all the difference between a tantrum, or a win for all, so I tried them:
- Acknowledge feelings to connect and calm: "It seems to me that you are angry that it is raining today and you want to wear sandals."
- Offer choices: "I see red sneakers and blue rain boots. Both are good for rainy days. Which would you like to wear?"
- Invite them to problem-solve with you: "I need you to keep your feet dry, and you want to be able to wiggle your toes. Do you have an idea of how we can do both?"
My son suggested wearing the rain boots to the car, and then at preschool, putting on the sandals over his socks. He had the freedom of choice to wiggle his toes all day, and I get to rest assured that wet feet won't be the reason he catches a cold this week. It was a win-win that gave him the autonomy that preserved and strengthened our relationship—a skill we use to this day.
Bottom line: Your toddler's refusal to get dressed is not your fault, mama. But it is your job to help nurture their natural drive to be independent. Next time they're fighting getting dressed, start by trying one of the steps above and see what happens. You've got this.