Welcome to 2018! If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks might have thrown you a little off course - bedtimes are later, you (and kids) are sleeping in, pumpkin pie is a legitimate breakfast option, and days are filled with either fun activities or space to do a whole lot of nothing (in your pajamas, of course). It’s all too easy to fall into the “no plan” plan - which is great for vacation - but not so sustainable for everyday living. As the holidays come to a close, it can be really hard to get back into the swing of things, and returning to school and work can be even more challenging when there’s no routine or structure to fall back on.
As for all humans, the “unknown” can be very scary. Not knowing is hard! When we don’t know what to expect or what’s going to happen next, we might feel anxious, tight, angry, or notice a desire to control things (or others). There’s only one constant about life - that it is constantly changing - and the unknown lurks around every corner. For kids, especially, there is constant change both within and around them, and they often have little control over the change that is occurring. No wonder so many kids struggle with anxiety!
A structured, consistent routine provides a sense of safety and mastery. Especially during large transitions (like going back to school after three weeks of family, friends, play, and gingerbread men), it helps them to know when things are happening, what to expect, and what is expected of them. Lack of structure and routine can lead to anxiety, tantrums, lack of impulse-control, challenges with attention and concentration, and a general overactive nervous system. For kids and adults alike, routine makes life (more) predictable and creates a safe container in which the normal ups and downs of life can be managed and processed.
A regular schedule helps children learn self-discipline (and consequently gain self-confidence) as they gain mastery over their schedule and learn to take care of their own needs. It is the foundation of organization, stability, delayed gratification, and ability to handle the hiccups and bumps life inevitably presents. This doesn’t mean that routine needs to be so strict that there’s zero flexibility, though. Change is part of life and will happen no matter what, and breaking from routine for important events (holidays, vacations, global events, family outings, etc) also offers the opportunity to learn flexibility and handling both small and large changes. It also helps them learn that though they might have strayed from routine for one day, we’ll be back on the wagon tomorrow.
A consistent plan creates space for connection - to be seen and heard. For example, when families sit down together for meals with the expectation that there are no electronics, a container is built where each member can “be” with each other. They can hear/talk about the ups and downs of the day, feel each other’s energy, and truly build safe relationships. As with most family meals, there might be struggles, but having a routine that provides opportunities for connection also creates opportunities for overcoming and working through interpersonal challenges. Further, the sense of safety also created with a schedule promotes regulation, during which that deep connection of feeling seen and heard can also be fostered.
So, how does one even begin to implement a regular routine? Well, let’s think of the two times of day when things may be most hectic around the house: waking up and going to school, and evenings after school. Morning and evening routines can be the most important to assist in transition to school and unwinding for bed. A good night’s sleep is critical for a growing body and brain, and a regular night routine is essential for helping an anxious child unwind after a long, exhausting day. Maybe create a bedtime checklist for your child to accomplish - bath time, PJs, brush teeth, get in bed. Or set a time when you join them to read a book or listen to some calming music. A regular morning routine is also important in allowing your child (and you) to start the day at a sustainable pace and in connection, rather than in chaos and anxiety. And who wouldn’t like to start off the day calmly and peacefully? Consider this: Is there a set breakfast time? What’s expected to be done before coming to the breakfast table? What time do you need to leave to avoid being tardy? Imagine the challenges you face during these times and plan ways to structure the morning so that everyone is aware of what happens in what order and who is in charge of which task.
I know - it can seem overwhelming! Even in just writing this, I think, “is this real? Can it be done?” But time after time, I have seen how creatively incorporating a structured routine helps families and kids with even the most challenging of behavior.
I know for me, getting back to routine can be really challenging after such a long break. And trying to transition back into everyday living without a schedule tends to look a lot like chaos. A very practical and efficient practice is to have a physical, visual schedule to keep things straight. For me, it’s just a white board with the days on it. Or the calendar is filled in and blocked off on my phone. With kids, you could get more creative - maybe enlist their assistance in creating reminders around the home for who needs to do what when. Make it meaningful to your family - the more meaningful and cooperative in nature, the more cooperation you may get!
Don’t get me wrong, those first few days might be really hard - but don’t give up! Just because day 3 doesn’t go completely according to plan, doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel. Your kids have had several weeks off of the normal schedule, so it might take some time to get back to it. Help them learn to overcome challenges and stick with hard tasks by naming the slip-up, exploring how you got off track, and recommitting to the plan tomorrow. If you can hang in there through the difficulty of restarting an old routine or incorporating a new schedule, you might find more space, connection, peace, and joy on the other side.
Samantha is a child and adolescent therapist in Lafayette, Colorado, and is passionate about engaging with youth in a way that promotes empowered authenticity. She is dedicated to helping kids and teens cultivate greater self-awareness, self-acceptance, and authentic expression so they can relate to the world in a positive way and thrive in all areas of their life. Samantha wants her clients to learn that it is OK and safe to be who they are - that their thoughts, feelings, stories, and experiences matter - and to see how awesome they truly are.