11 ways to salvage a bad morning when everything’s gone off the rails

It’s 7:54 a.m., and we have six minutes to leave the house before we’re doomed to be late for school—again. My eight-year-old son, Pierce, is lying on the floor, his pants soaked with the orange juice he knocked over while stealing his sister’s waffle. Ten-year-old Marley is still wearing pyjamas, and her hair looks like a rat’s nest.

I’ve (calmly) asked them both to change and brush their teeth and hair at least four times. Instead, they’ve performed an impromptu dance routine with the hamster, placed their foreheads against the radiator to convince me they have fevers and argued with each other over every little thing.

My last ounce of patience drains as they make fish faces in the bathroom mirror, ignoring their toothbrushes. The clock ticks closer to our inevitable lateness. Even Jack Bauer doesn’t cut it this close. They giggle, and I lose it. “I said now!” I scream. Their bodies become rigid. Their eyes look frightened and hurt as they rush to do the things I asked. A pang of guilt stabs my chest. We drive to school in silence, each of us brooding over perceived injustices. As we hug one another goodbye, I apologize for being cranky and squeeze them a little tighter, feeling horrible about having lost control.

We’ve all been there. Bad mornings happen, and they leave us feeling guilty, angry and frustrated. Judy Arnall, the Calgary-based author of Parenting With Patience, says these crappy feelings can stay with us during the day, making it difficult for kids to concentrate at school and for parents to focus on work. While the occasional morning yelling match is inevitable, if it happens more than once a week, she says we could be unintentionally making our kids feel incompetent and damaging their self-esteem.

But before you award yourself the Worst Parent of the Year trophy—again—Arnall says to give yourself a break. “You can turn it around at any time.”

When we’re stressed, it can be hard to see how vulnerable and innocent our kids are. It helps to remember they’re not maliciously trying to throw off our schedules. “This is a stage,” says Arnall, adding that, up until age seven, kids are egocentric, which makes them natural dawdlers.

So the next time your morning is off to a stormy start, try these tips from our experts to put everyone’s day back on a happier track.

1. Get them moving

Stop the chaos in its tracks with a quick stretching session, which helps relax the body and mind, and is a great distraction tool, says Halifax psychologist Andrea Cook. Have everyone take three deep yoga breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth) while reaching for the sky. Then have them touch their toes, jump up and down, and wiggle their fingers before getting back to the task at hand.

2. Turn on some tunes

Listening to music can change your mood, says Arnall. Whether you put on something slow and relaxing to create a sense of calm or blast a tune that makes everyone want to groove and sing along, music can help alleviate stress and make you feel good, she says. An impromptu lip-synch or dance party will guarantee smiles all around—but set a time limit, as you still need to get out the door on schedule.

3. Be happy (even if you’re not)

“When you’re frustrated, try smiling,” suggests Ottawa psychologist Sandy Ages. Smiles are contagious (as is a calm voice) and make a huge difference to everyone’s mood. If you aren’t too irritated, tell a funny joke or do the Chicken Dance to make kids laugh. Better yet, try singing everything you say. You might find the kids more willing to put their shoes on when asked in an opera voice.

4. Try a do-over

Cook suggests restarting the day if you feel it going off the rails. Say good morning again or physically rewind by spinning in a silly way. Change the topic to something you’re all looking forward to, like having ice cream for dessert tonight.

5. Notice good behaviour

Catching kids being good can change the entire mood of a morning, says Cook. It can make a cranky child feel valued and therefore more cooperative. Telling kids you love them, giving them a kiss and praising them for little things can help them realize that behaving well has its benefits. On the way to school, rehash the good behaviour so they walk in feeling confident and happy.

6. Say yes

Give your inner control freak a vacation and say yes to something he wants, suggests Arnall. Wearing a pyjama top or mismatched socks to school isn’t going to hurt anyone but will let your kid feel empowered (and therefore happier) about making a choice on his own. Bonus: one less argument to deal with!

7. Listen to your kid

He may just be angry because you cleared his cereal bowl before he finished. Tell him you understand how he feels, and then give the bowl back (if you can) and set a timer for two minutes, making it into a game to see how quickly he can finish. If you can’t, tell him he can choose his favourite cereal tomorrow.

8. Squash sibling rivalry

When your kids are fighting, acknowledge their feelings (“I see that you’re upset with your brother for stealing your waffle—would you like another one?”), and then write the issue on a whiteboard to be discussed after school or at your next family meeting, says Arnall.

9. Take a time out…for you

When tensions are high, stop what you’re doing, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself what you need to calm down, says Arnall. Whether it’s a few sips of water or three minutes alone in the bathroom, find a way to regain control.

10. Give a hug

When your kids are moving at a snail’s pace and your impulse is to snap, go for a hug instead. “If a parent has the self-control to switch gears from yelling to hug mode, that’s great,” says Arnall. Better yet, incorporate cuddle sessions into your evening and morning routines: It helps develop an emotional and physical connection, says Ages, and a hug or a morning high-five will boost your mood and your kid’s.

11. Look at the big picture

Stop and ask yourself, Will this matter in five years? suggests Arnall. If not, try to accept that you’re going to be late, the cat is covered in syrup and your son hasn’t finished his homework. Letting go will help take the pressure off and allow breathing room to get things done sanely.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, your kids will throw tantrums, your house will be chaos and you’ll speak louder than you want to. Try not to worry about it, says Edmonton-based psychologist Jeanne Williams, as long as your mornings run smoothly most days. And remember, there’s always tomorrow.

This story was originally published in 2020.

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