De-Stressing Family Life

The Slow Riser

Beth Weinhouse and David Galef of Oxford, MS, and their son, Daniel, 6

The scene: On a typical morning, the alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and my husband, David -- an English professor -- and I stare blearily at each other to decide who'll be the one to wake up our son. Daniel is not a morning person -- far from it. We've tried putting an alarm clock next to his bed, making him laugh with waking-up spells á la Harry Potter ("Leviosa!"), and even just plunking him down at the breakfast table, all to no avail.

Daniel dawdles over breakfast and would much rather chat than chew. David and I spend the next 45 minutes pleading with him to finish his breakfast, put on his clothes, and brush his teeth. We barely make it out the door on time.

The expert: Anne Strand, a psychotherapist and teacher in Oxford. Strand is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy in Alexandria, VA, a diplomate in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in Fairfax, VA, and a certified Imago Relationship Therapist.

What happened: Strand had arranged to be at our house at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes before we wake Daniel. She would watch the entire pathetic routine and then give us her suggestions. Of course, Daniel chose that morning to wake up on his own at 6:30 a.m. But even given that change of events, the flaws in our habits became increasingly apparent.

In the middle of eating breakfast, Daniel decided it would be interesting to see if he could drink milk with his mouth closed and somehow absorb the liquid through the skin of his upper lip. In spite of the impressive milk mustache he developed, he wouldn't concede that any milk getting into his mouth was getting there through a small opening he'd left between his lips. I started to argue with him, then turned to analogy: "What if we filled your bathtub with milk and you climbed in? If you could absorb liquid through your skin, you'd be as big as a beach ball."

That subject of discussion was followed by another and another until finally -- after looking at the clock for the umpteenth time -- David and I refused to talk with him anymore unless he finished his breakfast and got ready for school. Naturally, by the time that was done there was no time left for more conversation and Daniel departed for school annoyed.

The analysis: Strand told me she approved of how I'd avoided a circular argument with Daniel -- an endless repetition of "Yes, you cans" and "No, you can'ts" -- and convinced him with an analogy. Not bad for 7 in the morning! But my gloating was short-lived because this exchange pointed to one of our biggest morning problems. "You all talk a lot," she said bluntly. And she pointed out that in all our talk, instructions tend to get lost.

The therapist noted it was important to make sure we have Daniel's full attention before giving instructions. "Make face-to-face contact and look directly into his eyes," she said, adding that we could even put a hand on his shoulder while speaking. That would help him to focus better on what was being said.

In addition, Strand suggested that even though we obviously all enjoy talking with each other, we should save it for times when we're not so rushed. "If he's eating breakfast quietly, don't distract him with conversation," she advised. She also said that it may help for David and me to take turns being in charge. That way, there's one less person talking and less chance of Daniel's getting conflicting instructions.

As for rousing Daniel out of bed, Strand respected our son's biorhythms and didn't try to convince us that an earlier bedtime would be the solution. Instead, she said that maybe he would wake up better to light than sound. She suggested trying an alarm clock that uses flashing or gradually brightening light. Or failing that, we could simply leave his window shades up and see if the natural light helped him awaken better.

Two months later: Raising Daniel's window shades has made a world of difference. Most mornings now he gets up on his own. When mornings turn dark again in the winter, we'll consider buying a special alarm clock. David and I have also started dividing responsibilities in the morning, which helps. We take turns getting up with Daniel, letting the other sleep a bit more. Daniel is still a slow eater and still chatty in the morning, but with just one of us there to talk to him and issue instructions, things definitely go more smoothly.

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