When my son was 4 he went through a period when he was very resistant to getting dressed. It didn’t matter if he was dressing himself or if I offered to help him, it was a struggle every morning. Over the course of a few weeks I attempted all sorts of play to try to loosen the tension. I pretended that his clothes were talking to him or hiding from him because they didn’t want to be worn. I tried to put his clothes on myself and acted dismayed because they were too small. I pretended I couldn’t figure out where his shirt went and tried to put it on his feet. Despite my efforts, and a few smiles here and there, getting dressed remained a daily struggle.
One day I decided to hold out the expectation that he get dressed and see what would happen. I told him it was time to put his clothes on. When he tried to run away I pulled him onto my lap and restated the limit, saying ‘it’s time to get dressed now’ without elaboration. He started to cry and thrash, attempting to get away. I kept him with me and listened, holding his arms gently when he tried to hit or scratch. He’d periodically interrupt his crying with distractions, which took the form of asking me questions about planets, one of his passions at the time. Having been through lots of staylistening previously, I knew that when he asked questions one after another, especially questions that he already knew the answers to, it meant that there were still difficult feelings coming up. In response to ‘Mommy, is Mars bigger than Mercury?’ I drew his attention back to the limit and told him again that it was time to put his clothes on. This led to more crying and I stayed close and listened.
After what felt like a very long time he stopped struggling, sat up in my lap, looked right at me and asked if I would still recognize him when he grows up. I reassured him that I’d always know him, always love him, and always be his mom, even if he looked different. It was like a switch had been flipped. After offloading the fear getting dressed was no longer an issue.
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