I'm having a hard time recently with my 3.5-year-old where I struggle to get him out the door in the morning without multiple tantrums and cries.

He usually gets up on his own and comes to my room where we snuggle a bit. Then we eat breakfast together, and after that I breastfeed his 4-month-old baby sister. Then things seem to go downhill from there. He does everything to avoid to get dressed and I have a hard time finding an appropriate response that will not just make us even more late.

For example, we used to have time outs, but in the morning he will exploit this to gain time and stay in the house longer. I struggle to find a direct consequence to apply when his behaviour becomes bad. For example, taking a toy away doesn't seem to affect him, neither is trying to get him to understand that the later we leave, the later I will get him at night (once in daycare he usually has a good time and is in no hurry to leave). He doesn't have TV time on week days so I can't remove this either. At night things go much better but we have some things he likes that we can use as leverage (dessert, story time). It seems inefficient to use those as a consequence of his behaviour in the morning because I'm not sure that he would be able to understand the connection.

After a while he will calm down, get dressed and then the rest of our routine goes smoothly. I must admit I often end up getting frustrated and under the impression that I'm playing in the same game that he sets me up day after day. I must regain control of this power struggle. Any suggestion?

  • Have you tried picking his clothes the night before? Do you think he's defiance is related to the feeding of his sister (attention away from him) or is it just the order thing are done?
    – SAM A
    Feb 8, 2018 at 2:12
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    Globally I think that he is still adjusting to not being the exclusive centre of our attention. Sometimes he reacts to the breastfeeding (wants to hold the baby while she is feeding or engaging in other inappropriate behaviour) but most of the time it is going well. I think that maybe when the time comes to get dressed, he understands that we are truly on the way of getting out the door and he wants to stall the process as much as possible. I will try to better identify his triggers, it could be something else...
    – aneder
    Feb 8, 2018 at 2:53
  • Is this a steady routine at a fixed time or just getting ready for the daily errands? Feb 9, 2018 at 17:34
  • It is our weekday routine (preparing and leaving for daycare)
    – aneder
    Feb 10, 2018 at 0:50

4 Answers 4


I've recently had limited success in this area with my 3 year old (compared to zero success in the past). We have a magnetic white board with all the morning routine activities - potty, breakfast, toy time, clean up toys, brush teeth, get dressed, etc (this set). He gets to help order the activities but he now understands that if everything gets done quickly there's extra toy time before it's time to leave. We don't move on to the next thing until the previous is done. When he starts investigating every piece of lint and dirt on the carpet I remind him that the clock is 'eating' his toy time. When I start to get frustrated I tell him that I need a time-out and sit on the steps to do some deep breathing. (Putting him in time-out was a huge futile effort. Now I put myself in time-out and he knows I'm at my breaking point). He gets very upset when we need to leave right after getting dressed but is catching on to how his time choices impact our morning. In the end, it takes the same amount of time as going through the power struggle but is way less frustrating for me and he does seem to be learning.

  • That's where I would like to get with him. However, for the moment this kid won't play alone at all! He almost considers it a punishment. He's now starting to enjoy playing with his sister though, so I think I will implement a little play period before leaving. Since I originally posted, we started to do a "dress-up race" together and it is working amazingly well! He dresses up fast and almost all by himself. I'm milking it for as long as it will last ;)
    – aneder
    Mar 7, 2018 at 14:19

I'd switch up the order. Make him get dressed before breakfast. If he takes too long, he misses breakfast. That's a consequence he can understand, close enough to the time of getting dressed.

  • I might try that, he is often very hungry in the morning so it might motivate him. However I must really be sure that I'm willing to use food as a bribe, recently we had a lot of issues at dinner time but it seems to be going better and better... Don't want to make the only meal (breakfast) that is without issues a big deal...
    – aneder
    Feb 8, 2018 at 20:50
  • I don't think of it as a bribe, you are just reordering the things you always do everyday.
    – swbarnes2
    Feb 9, 2018 at 18:04
  • That is the only way I could get my son dressed, "get dressed or you will go out like that" worked all winter, come spring BOOM I had to take a child in wellies and a t-shirt to play group.
    – WendyG
    Feb 12, 2018 at 13:20

He has learned that being late gets your attention, even if it is the wrong king of attention.

Try to find something that he really enjoys and involves you, preferably something that can be done near your nursery. If he gets ready in time, you arrive earlier than needed at the nursery and he has his game; but if he delays the process he will loose it. Soon enough, he will understand that he gets better results by being on time than late.


I go through this periodically with my 6 year old. At one point, the situation you describe was the routine. We say, "It's time to get dressed, pick out some clothes." And he says, "NOOOOOO!", and flops on the floor. After some kicking and screaming, name calling, and alone time in his room, he would get up, get dressed, and calmly walk out as if nothing had happened. Or, he appears to comply, but when he goes into his room, proceeds to read, build Lego fortresses, or hide in his closet until we come looking for him. Then comes the reminder, then the kicking and screaming, followed at some point by dressing himself.

Sometimes, you just have to put up with it, but there are definitely things you can proactively do to improve the situation. Having some choice seems to help. "Do you want to get dressed right now, or in a minute?" "Do you want to do it, or would you like me to do it?". These types of options really help when tantrums are brewing, but before he goes critical.

What really, really helps, is a consistent routine, and starting earlier if there are consistent issues being late. This at the very least reduces the fallout, if not the stress and pressure that can push both sides over the edge.

  • I know I need to stay calm, but it is so hard. I think he definitely likes the huge impact it has on me (I hate the stress of being late!). Sadly offering choices doesn't seem to work anymore. I thought of a reward system... But in some way I don't like the idea of rewarding something that should be just expected.
    – aneder
    Feb 7, 2018 at 19:38
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    It sure is difficult. I fail almost everyday. I just try to succeed more often. Extrinsic rewards are a slippery slope, and bribes are worse. I try to avoid consequences if at all possible in situations like this, and make the reward "doing what you want after doing what you need to do" - free time to use as he pleases. I put the clothes on him if I have to, but that is a last resort.
    – zugzwang
    Feb 7, 2018 at 20:37
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    @aneder You may have identified a trigger there. "I think he definitely likes the huge impact it has on me". He's still young enough that he wants to have any control he can over his world. And provoking a reaction is a method of control. Try to limit or stop reacting (way easier said than done). If he isn't ready on time, you might need to forcibly dress him then go buckle him in his car seat (so he can't escape and undress himself). After a few rounds of this, he'll start to get it. Removing the "fun" of a reaction and replacing it with something undesirable will get the message across.
    – Becuzz
    Feb 8, 2018 at 20:02
  • @Becuzz Yes you're right. I'm pretty sure that he does it just to see if he can make me loose my cool. He always was a child prone to tantrums and the like, but recently he started to do this thing where he just ignore us and would to anything to NOT do what we want him to do. I know that my trigger for losing my patience with him is when I start to feel "powerless". That is why I'm looking for a plan or a consequence that I could apply and follow through. I know that it would be much easier for me to keep my calm if I know exactly where I'm heading and what I will do next.
    – aneder
    Feb 8, 2018 at 20:45
  • @aneder I hope someone has some better ideas on how to reason with a toddler. But I have long maintained that there is a good reason why parents are bigger and stronger than (sometimes) unreasonable toddlers.
    – Becuzz
    Feb 8, 2018 at 20:55

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