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Mama Drama: Building Independent Self-Care Skills

Dear Mama Drama:

I am trying to get my five-year-old son to be more independent in bathing and dressing himself. I have been working with him for the past two weeks on this and he still cannot do anything on his own. I am frustrated and he starts crying every time I tell him to do it on his own. I don’t understand why this is so hard or how to help him.

~Confused Mama

Dear Confused:

Building independent self-care skills for bathing, dressing, etc., is very important for five-year-olds. While as adults we view these skills as fairly basic, we have also been doing them for many, many years. Tasks that seem like one step for us, i.e. washing our hair, are really multiple steps. For your son to try to master all of these things in a short amount of time is probably quite overwhelming.

Rather than working on all independent self-help skills at once, I suggested stepping back and deciding what will be the easiest skill for him to master. Start with that skill so he can experience success quickly and build from there.

Break down the skill step by step and teach him in manageable chunks. For example, if you are teaching him to wash his hair the steps are 1) wet your hair, 2) get the shampoo bottle, 3) pour shampoo on your hand, 4) put the bottle down, 5) rub your hands together, 6) rub the shampoo all over your head/hair (this in and of itself requires lots of practice), 7) rinse the shampoo out of your hair.

Talk through the steps as you do them for him for a few days. Then talk through the steps as he does them himself. Use simple, concise language to describe each step. When he gets stuck or distracted, ask him, “What’s next?”

Making up a song or rhyme to describe the routine can make things more fun and easier to remember. Be sure to give your lots of positive recognition for his efforts throughout the process of learning. Focus on what he has done well and gently re-teach when he struggles.

Once he has master washing his hair move on to the next skill while continuing to encourage and reinforce the skill he has mastered. If he uses hair conditioner that is a perfect second skill because he already knows the steps with the shampoo!

Clear and simple directions will make a big difference for your son as he works master these self-help tasks. Using visual schedules to show the steps can be very helpful and allows you to support him without always telling him what to do. As you fade your verbal cues, you can have him use the visual schedule to see what comes next. Visual schedules can be used to describe a broad daily routine as well as to break down the steps of tasks within that routine.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Thursdays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in the next column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.

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Mama Drama: How to Grow Independent Problem Solvers

Dear Mama Drama:

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I’m afraid I’ve created a monster (or two) by being an overprotective mom. My kids can’t seem to solve even the smallest problem by themselves. If something doesn’t turn out the way they think it should, they fall apart and for every little thing it’s “Mom, mom, mom!”

How can I help them become more independent?

~Overprotective Mama

Dear Overprotective:

Good for you for realizing that you are the link in this chain of helplessness that you have the control to change. It’s hard to admit when our behavior has led to difficult behavior in our children.

There are many small things you can do to help your children increase their independent problem solving skills. It just takes a shift in thinking, a lot of teaching, and a bucketful of patience. 🙂

First, help your children develop problem solving language:

  • Be a loud thinker (talk out loud about how you are solving everyday problems). Kids often think everything is easy for adults because they don’t hear all the problem solving we are doing in our head.
  • Prompt your child to say what s/he wants and wait, “My turn, please.” “I want the car, please.” “Can I join your game?”
  • Teach problem solving options such as asking politely, sharing, playing together, taking turns, doing something else, and asking for help (make this the last resort unless it’s something dangerous).

Increase problem solving confidence:

  • Ask your child for help in solving everyday problems, such “How many plates will we need at the table?” “I only have one apple, how can we all have some of it?” “We both have a show we want to watch, how can we solve that?”
  • When s/he shares a problem, ask your child what s/he can do to solve it. Make sure you do this with kindness, not sarcasm.
  • Allow your child time to think and find solutions without taking over or solving it for him/her.
  • Allow your child to try out solutions you don’t think will work. Learning from mistakes is a great way to become a better problem solver.
  • Recognize when s/he has solved a problem with specific verbal praise, “You used your thinking brain.” “That was hard, but you kept trying and figured it out.”

Support safety and self-advocacy strategies when peers or others are physically or emotionally hurtful:

  • Teach your child to say “Stop! I don’t like that.” “Stop! Be gentle.” “Please ask first.”
  • Remind him/her to ask a grown up for help if needed.
  • Teach them to tell a trusted grown up right away if someone’s behavior feels uncomfortable to them.

Congratulate your kids as you see them using their problem solving skills.

Congratulate yourself as you notice yourself teaching, waiting, and providing the space and support for your children to grow.

Remember to be gentle with them and with yourself. There will be some bumps in the road, but that’s how you’ll all learn from mistakes and find better solutions the next time.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Thursdays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in the next column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.