Let’s Talk Anxiety: Stressful Mornings – by David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., ABPP, & Sara Berlin, LMSW

Question. Since the end of the Yomim Tovim, my youngest son has been having a really difficult time getting up and out of the house to school in the mornings. After what feels like a battle each day to get him out of bed, spends an unusually long amount of time washing up, getting dressed, and having breakfast before he finally gets out the door. Even then, he has been going into school late because of the commotion and fuss every single day. Once he’s finally out of the house, I feel exhausted by the struggle. I’ve grown accustomed to the occasional skirmish in the morning with my older kids. But this level of difficulty feels troubling. I really want to help make his mornings easier so that he looks forward to waking up and seeing his friends in school, but the morning mess makes it so difficult for him to start the day off right. Is there anything I can do to help manage or even avoid our morning conflicts and get him to school on time and feeling happier?


Concerned Parent



Dear Concerned Parent,

Thank you for writing. Mornings can be difficult for children for a variety of reasons, despite our sincere efforts to help them start the day on the right foot. Aside from the time limits inherent in morning routines that doesn’t allow for much flexibility, children may experience difficulties with the numerous transitions in the morning. In a very narrow window of time, children transition from being asleep to being awake, from their warm pajamas to school clothing, from family to peers, and from home to school. In addition, starting the school day in an angry or irritable mood can lead to academic difficulties later on. Fortunately, mornings can be made far easier by structuring the morning rush. Here are some helpful tips to ease the transitions and time crunch:

  1. Plan Ahead

Mornings go from challenging to unmanageable when there just isn’t enough time to do everything that needs to get done. If you’re not doing this already, prepare school lunches, wash up, put together homework, notes, and backpacks, and lay out clothes for with the kids each night before you go to bed. As well, pick a Sunday afternoon, take your child out for ice cream, and speak with him to come up with a plan about what needs to get done in the morning and how you two can work together. A related strategy is to can prepare children for hectic mornings by setting clear expectations with a clear and easy-to-understand list or chart that they can refer to once they wake up.

  1. Temper expectations

It can be easy to forget what children may or may not know. For younger children especially, parents need to remember that getting ready in the morning is a bona fide challenge for many people. Some kids simply transition less easily than others. Perhaps your older children were just temperamentally easier than your youngest?

  1. Create an Inviting Atmosphere

Waking up to a loud alarm clock, or worse, the yelling of a parent or older sibling, can be jarring and unpleasant for anyone, especially children. Therefore, it’s essential to create a pleasant morning atmosphere. Consider filling your home with joyful music to greet each day. Encourage the kids with their favorite (healthy!) breakfast foods. And provide plenty of loving physical affection and attention. Praise them for getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and more. And when they fight with you or each other, try to distract them instead of using discipline – mornings are rarely a good time to cultivating a calm atmosphere can take the sting out of waking up and help your children look forward to mornings.

  1. Use Visual and Verbal Prompts

Even once you’ve clarified a plan and created an inviting atmosphere, many children need attention-catching visual and verbal prompts to help them remember what they need to be doing in the morning. Some children may only need a quick reminder (“Remember to brush your teeth!”), but others may need more reminders, or visual cues such as pictures, to keep to their morning routines.

  1. Create Incentives

All people but children, in particular, tend to be more motivated and cooperative given the prospect of a reward or prize for specific behavior. Offering your child a tangible reward as a reinforcer can have a strong impact on his morning performance. As a parent, you should set the expectations and guidelines for qualifying for a reward. For example, for each morning that your child wakes up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and brushes his or her teeth by 7:45am without more than three prompts, they can earn points towards a specific reward that they want to receive. Even more important though is to praise your children. Clinical science has shown us consistently across multiple studies that verbal praise for specific behaviors is an even more powerful reinforcer than token rewards. So each time your child gets ready on time (or another target behavior) give him a big smile and say “Great work getting ready on time. You did it!”

  1. Know When to Seek Professional Help

Notwithstanding the above solutions, it could very well be that your troubling situation warrants professional intervention. Sometimes there are family, environmental, emotional, attentional, or behavioral factors that are causing problems such as those that you’ve described, which are best addressed with a formal intervention. While this may seem daunting, professionals can provide clear insight as to why issues are occurring and point you and your child in the direction of solutions, such as developing adaptive and effective behavior management skills, guiding child and parent towards stronger connections and more successful interactions, or working with the child individually to help them develop skills to more effectively regulate their emotions.

All our best,

Center for Anxiety

David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., ABPP, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, part-time, and a board certified clinical psychologist. He also directs the Center for Anxiety, which has offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Monsey, and Boston. Sara Berlin, LMSW is a Staff Clinician at the Center for Anxiety’s Monsey office. She is a skilled clinician who helps individuals across the lifespan, but she particularly excels in working with children experiencing anxiety, selective mutism, oppositional behavior and social skills difficulties.

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