My son sometimes refuses to dress himself, and it’s a battle

Q: Our 4½-year-old is bright, funny and perfectly capable of dressing himself. Some days, he’ll get himself dressed from head to toe before we’ve even woken up! But other mornings (maybe 20 percent), getting him to dress himself is like pulling teeth while trudging through peanut butter. He whines and says he can’t do it while actively not trying.

We’ve been holding firm on these mornings and getting him dressed turns into an unpleasant slog for all. Is our expectation that he get himself dressed age-appropriate, and do we need to keep doing this? Or on these mornings, can we just cheerfully say “Okay bud, you need help today” without it becoming every day?

A: Thank you for writing; almost every parent has grappled with this back and forth and, while it may seem pretty small in the face of larger parenting problems, struggles like this can actually lead to real relationship issues with your child. And so it makes sense to look at whether you should hold a boundary or help your child here.

I also want to speak more broadly about the idea of generosity toward our children (of any age) and if it spoils them.

A 4½-year-old is a funny creature. You see leaps and bounds in maturity, growth, and they sure love their independence. For many children this age, their opinions know no end. A 4½-year-old can use logic, but they often still believe in magic, so arguing with them can quickly go off the rails. A 4-year-old is known for being “big and little,” and I am not sure who is more frustrated at this developmental stage: the parents or the child.

When we look at your son’s back and forth, we need to remember that growth is not linear. The growth spurts you see (I can dress myself!) are quickly followed by what looks like a regression (I can’t do it), which is confusing to a parent. You know the child is physically able to do it, so the refusal to get dressed feels manipulative and lazy. How can we understand this? Let’s look at it through an attachment lens.

As a human grows, they are meant to be emotionally and physically close to their main caregivers. This deep attachment helps them to mature, venture forth and take on new responsibilities and challenges — all the good stuff we want as parents! As the child grows and becomes more independent, the nervous system alerts the child to check back in with their attachments. It says, “Hey, check in! Are you safe? Are you okay? Go back for help!”

This check-in is quite literal when you have a little one or preschooler — think of the 2-year-old hiding behind your leg when a stranger talks to them — but you can see it at every age. Your very opinionated, independent and annoyed tween will flop on the couch next to you and want to cuddle after a long day or will become whiny and needy at seemingly strange times. Older teens come home from school and immediately soften when you give them their favorite food and a spot on the couch. Can they make food and turn on a TV by themselves? Of course! But their nervous systems seek this attachment and ease with someone they love and trust. And if you, the parent, are vulnerable enough, you are the same way. If you trust your partner, you will crawl into their arms after a long day, feeling very much like a child yourself. This is how humans are built; it is not manipulation or laziness.

As your son is in these leaps and bounds of growth, see the resistance to getting dressed as a call to attachment rather than an issue to discipline or a boundary to hold. Your instinct to “just cheerfully say ‘Okay bud, you need help today’” is spot on, and the funny thing with humans is that love and support does not spoil us or make us lazy. This connection is the very thing that helps our children grow and allow for spontaneous maturity. In fact, the more joyfully you dress him, the more you relish it, cuddle him, kiss him and love him, the safer he feels. The safer a human feels, the more fully they mature. You don’t need an expert to tell you this; look at any significant relationship in your life where you feel nurtured and safe. I’m sure you became your best self with that person.

Will a time come where you will hold some boundaries and your son will cry? Yes! And that’s okay. Children are born to be frustrated, and they can handle it quite well when they have a good relationship with their parents. The big emotions will come and go; your job is to not take it all so personally. Navigating our children’s growth is more of a dance than a prescription.

For more support, check out the classes at The Neufeld Institute, as well as “Parenting From The Inside Out” by Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell, “Becoming Attached” by Robert Karen, and “Brain-Body Parenting” by Mona Delahooke. Good luck.

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