Morning struggle leaves my daughter in tears daily

"You are witnessing her brain trying to integrate opposing urges."
"You are witnessing her brain trying to integrate opposing urges." Photo: Getty Images

Q: My daughter will be 5 in June and has recently begun to cry every morning when it's time to get ready for the day's agenda. It can be dancing, school, soccer or our nanny coming. (I work part time.) Whatever the plan is for that day, she will cry about it. I don't know if it's anxiety or control. I'm trying hard to stay calm and explain that these are all things we are lucky to do - I let her know that she can watch and not participate - but I still face the crying in the morning. She's always happy once she gets to school. We sit and watch dance and soccer. I can't help but feel frustrated that I've wasted my time to take her to these activities, which she used to love. I should add that I recently told her that other kids her age are getting dressed by themselves in the morning. She is able to but always prefers help. I feel like she's tinkering between wanting independence and wanting to still be my baby. It's driving me crazy. Please help!

A: I know you are one frustrated parent, but that last line filled my heart with hope! "I feel like she's tinkering between wanting independence and wanting to still be my baby." This is the answer to your problems. I have to back up and dig into your worries, but know that you are on the right track. You are seeing the correct things, and to me, this is everything.

Let's look more closely at your daughter's behaviour and what it reveals about her.

Four-year-old children are notorious for the "back-and-forth" feelings you are experiencing. One minute she is clinging to your leg with fear and trepidation, the next she is smiling and happy at school or her activity. This is maddening if you don't understand the four-year-old mind, and it can begin to feel like she is manipulating or controlling you. She isn't.

The average four-year-old is on the verge of a bit of maturity. As in, the kind of maturity with which one has the ability to hold two opposing thoughts or feelings at the same time. For instance, I was excited to start my own coaching business, but I was also afraid it would fail. Two opposing feelings: excitement and fear. I could sit with both of these emotions and even use them to my benefit.

A four-year-old is only starting to merge those ideas. Your daughter is biologically built to want to stay with you, so her brain will send her into alarm if she thinks you are leaving her. She will cling, cry and panic a bit. Her brain is sending her the message, "Stay close to your parent! It is the only way you can survive."

But we can see her growth, because once you get to the activity or school, her brain sees her teachers, her classmates and the fun of soccer and says, "Oh hey . . . you like this stuff. It's okay. Go play."

Essentially, she is flipping from fear to excitement, and this flip can happen multiple times a day, even multiple times in an hour.

It leaves you feeling frustrated, depleted and manipulated.


But you are witnessing her brain trying to integrate opposing urges.

Where parents severely misstep is when they lead with rational thought (the enemy of effective parenting). You write, "I'm trying hard to stay calm and explain that these are all things we are lucky to do - I let her know that she can watch and not participate - but I still face the crying in the morning."

To put it plainly, she doesn't care. She doesn't know she is lucky; she is too young to understand luck or gratitude. She doesn't care about the money you have spent. She doesn't care about your plans or your outcomes or your hopes. That would require her brain to be able to take on your perspective, and she is too immature for that.

Although this sounds rough, consider the fact that you have created plans that have more to do with you than with her. You thought she would love dancing and soccer and school. You wanted her to jump in and love it. These were your wishes.

I am not blaming you for having her join. Our culture is introducing too many activities to children far too early. And, with the exception of children who are safer outside of the home than in, most young children need zero activities to help them mature. They don't need dance or music or soccer or anything else.

Young children need a safe home, a loving caregiver, healthy food and fresh air.

I can almost hear everyone gnashing their teeth and tearing at their hair at this notion.

There are entire industries built on "growing young children up," so I am here to free you from this idea. Poof! You are free.

Does this mean that these programs are problematic? No. They are unnecessary, which is not the same as ruinous. Sign up! Go! Enjoy the time spent together! Enjoy the sunlight and cool breeze! Just let go of your preconceived outcomes. Let go of your sparkly vision of learning and striving.

Every parent learns this lesson the hard way. I watched my eldest daughter pick flowers and spin around when she was on a soccer team for four-year-olds. I could have put my money in a barrel and burned it. Did she fail soccer? Nope. Did I fail her? Nope. I learned that I could have as many ideas as I would like, but my children are their own people, maturing every day.

Say, "You can play soccer, or I am happy to have you sit right here on my lap. I love having you here." And then shut up and wait. I bet she will hop up and play before long.

Just let it all go. I know this advice sounds simplistic, but why complicate something?

Finally, lay off talk about what other children are doing, re: dressing herself. Comparisons are the devil's work when it comes to parenting. It produces shame, anxiety and frustration. Comparison does not motivate, create compassion or strengthen relationships. Ever. With anyone.

So, go ahead and dress her. And love it. Everyone will tell you, "Oh, she will never dress herself." Ignore them and go find a kind grandma. She'll tell you the truth: Of course your daughter will dress herself eventually. She just wants to feel close to you. She wants you not to push her away. She wants to feel comforted and taken care of, so do it. Giving love and compassion (when you are in charge of the dynamic) results in relaxed children, not needy children.

You are seeing your child as "in between" big and little, so read the book Am I Big or Little? by Margaret Park Bridges together. Enjoy seeing the differences, and tell your daughter, "I love that you are big and little. You are right where you are supposed to be."

And let go. Stop rationalising with her and allow all the tears to fall. Say, "You are going to miss me - I know it is hard. I will see you in two hours and we will hug. It's okay to feel sad."

Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counselling and is a certified parent coach.

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