Eliminating morning mayhem: How to set your child up for success right from the start of the day

Categories: General Parenting

Some of us wake up fresh as a daisy, throwing the covers off and leaping out of bed to greet the new day with a smile!

The rest of us are normal.

Okay, that may not be entirely fair, but morning people do need to understand the struggle of those of us who are slow to get started in the AM, kids included. Moving our limbs feels like wading through porridge, and speaking is a skill we need to learn anew each day. Don’t even mention speaking nicely. Then, there’s the difficulty of actually performing tasks at this unreasonable hour (like getting ready to go to school) while wading through porridge and learning how to speak again. Impossible!

At night time, it’s a different story. We’re full of beans, radiant and sparkling with clever conversation and activity, while you morning people lie wilted and mumbling on the couch. 

Your family may be composed of all morning people, all nightowls, or a heady mix of both. Your kids might be morning people, but slowed down by anxiety about the day ahead. They might come alive at night but still have to get up early because a lot of working families run on a pretty tight schedule. Whatever the composition of your family, you’ve probably noticed that how your kids’ mornings begin can really set the tone for the rest of the day. 

So, what do you do about it?

How do you find ways to start your days that give your kids the best chance of success in their waking hours?

Let’s ask the experts. They always seem to know.

Understand their needs first

‘Mornings are tough,’ says Psychologist and ParentTV expert, Dr Justin Coulson.

‘Everyone’s rushing, there’s too much pressure. Sometimes kids wake up grumpy, or we do. They don’t know what they want in their lunch or they only want the thing you don’t have! They can’t find shoes, instruments, sports uniforms, anything. We’re worried about traffic and getting daycare drop-off done. It’s really stressful.’

Dr Justin Coulson

With six kids of his own, Justin Coulson and his wife have done a lot of work on their morning routine over the years, and he reckons they’ve nailed it by making sure they’re meeting the fundamental needs of their kids amongst all the morning mayhem. ‘There’s a theory called self-determination theory that suggests our kids have these three basic psychological needs, for competence, relatedness and autonomy,’ Dr Coulson explains. ‘These can all get trampled on in the morning rush to get out the door, which is what makes mornings so difficult. We destroy their autonomy in the mornings by telling our kids what to do all the time, we destroy their feeling of competence because we complain that they can’t get their act together and we destroy their feeling of relatedness because we’re not relating well to them, we’re cranky and pushy.’ So, how do you inject ways for kids to feel autonomous, competent and connected into your morning whirlwind? 

Get organised the night before

A little bit of preparation can go a long way, Dr Coulson suggests. ‘Your morning begins the night before. You can’t wake up and expect everything to go smoothly if you haven’t done the prep work in advance.’ In Dr Coulson’s family, that prep work takes the form of making checklists so each child knows what they need to do in the morning, as well as menus for the next day’s food. ‘We look at what’s in the fridge, come up with a few options, then each kid decides what they’re having for breakfast and lunch tomorrow. When they’re little, we can help them make it and as they get older they can do it themselves.’ Providing the scaffolding of menus and checklists allows kids to learn to manage things themselves, giving them that choice, autonomy and sense of competence they crave.

Maggie Dent, ParentTV expert and Queen of Common Sense, agrees. ‘My boys all had memories like sieves,’ says Maggie. ‘They spent so much time asking where different items were, so when I started putting their clothes in piles with socks, jocks and uniforms all together, my stress levels decreased rapidly. I did it the night before and left their piles at the ends of their beds. As they got older, they could do it themselves. Magic.’

Set the mood with music

‘Music can really lift everyone in the morning,’ says Maggie.

‘You have to be intuitive about what sort of music everyone needs and it might be nature sounds or something a bit more energetic, but it can really help get everyone into a good mood.’

Maggie Dent

Allison Davies, Neurologic Music Therapist, Brain care Specialist and ParentTV expert, agrees. ‘The brain loves music. It’s our mother tongue. You can be strategic with the music you use to change the atmosphere in your home. If your kids are a bit hyperactive, slower music will help them feel calmer. Music that’s about 60-80 BPM mimics the human heartbeat, so our motor cortex will get the message to chill out and relax.’ Dr Coulson agrees as well, saying that ‘I don’t know why, but music in the morning seems to make the whole family happy!’

Think about breakfast options

When you’re thinking about what food to offer your kids, the ‘Division of Responsibility’ model is a great approach, says ParentTV expert and Dietitian, Deb Blakley. As an added bonus, it ticks all those boxes for autonomy, connectedness and competence needs that Dr Coulson mentioned earlier.

What we need to do as parents is to find a nice balance between structure and autonomy of eating. ‘This means we need to stay in control of what, when and where children eat, and let them be in charge of how much and whether they eat.

Deb Blakley

For breakfast, this might involve offering several options that are acceptable to you, and then letting your kids choose which they want, then all eating together. When you’re considering these options, it’s also good to think about the foods that are going to give them the slow-release energy and sustenance to tide them over until they eat again. ‘Paediatric dietitian’s tell me that giving kids protein in the morning can be really beneficial,’ says Maggie Dent. ‘If they have simple carbs with lots of sugar for breakfast, they tend to have a big crash early on in the day. It makes learning difficult, and good behaviour choices harder.’

Limit screen time before school or daycare

Popping a TV show on while the kids scarf down breakfast and you finish getting ready might be an easy way of getting everything done, but it could end up backfiring, says ParentTV expert and digital wellbeing specialist, Dr Kristy Goodwin.

I know how crazy mornings can be and how we sometimes revert to the digital babysitter, but I encourage parents to be really careful about screen use before childcare, preschool or school. I’m a mum and my kids sometimes watch TV before school, so I’m not suggesting complete digital abstinence. What I am saying is to be cautious about the type of screen experiences they’re having at this time.

Dr Kristy Goodwin

The screen experiences that are problematic are usually rapid-fire cartoons or fast-paced video games, says Dr Goodwin, as these can hyper-aouse the brain. ‘When kids play or watch these sort of things, their sensory systems get overwhelmed and we get the really agitated behaviour after they come off screens and try to readjust.’ Furthermore, these fast-paced screen experiences can impact kids’ attention and concentration spans once they get to school, explains Dr Goodwin, as real life can’t compete.

No matter how engaging, competent and dynamic your child’s educator is, they are no match for the engagement provided by an animated character on a screen. So, rather than watching these sort of shows, using a book app or watching a slower-paced show can be a better alternative.

Dr Kristy Goodwin

Hopefully, these tips from the ParentTV expert team can help make your mornings a little less frantic. Let us know how you get on!