Not knowing what will happen next is stressful. In our families, many times parents/caregivers have a sense of what will be happening next but the children don’t.
For children, the fear of the unknown can include everything from a new food, who will or won’t be at the playground, to the divorce of parents. Children (particularly young children) face change more frequently than the rest of us, as they move from family out into the world, learning and growing. It’s a necessary but also stressful part of life. Little ones give up bottles, cribs, and pacifiers; school-age children experience new teachers and/or schools, different classmates. We can help our children cope with change by building structure and consistency into their lives.
Children, like all of us, handle change best if it is within the context of a familiar routine. The structure of routines allows them to feel safe and to feel a sense of mastery over their lives especially as they begin to manage the routines themselves. Unexpected change (new sibling, new child care provider, or a family move) is easiest if the basic routines of the child’s day/life are maintained.
Routines within the family also help children learn to cooperate, to take charge of their own activities (bedtime routines, packing their backpack for the next school day), and to build a sense of competence. Establishing some rituals along with daily routines – reading a story to your child after they get in bed, singing a song while brushing their hair in the morning –builds small connections with them, helping them feel secure.
Examples of routines (these are only samples, you and your children can make your own):
- Bed time (e.g. washing, tooth care, lay out clothes, story, bed)
- Morning (hug, get dressed, breakfast, play, grab backpack, out the door)
- After school (snack, play, time for homework, family work, family time)
- Figure out together what is going to work
- Practice the routine. For young children rehearsing routines outside of the time they are used is helpful. For example, a bedtime routine might be practiced on a Saturday morning.
- Support the routine by working together and then gradually release responsibility to the child
- Check back on how it is working.
- Children benefit by having visual reminders for some routines (e.g. bedtime, morning).
- Decide together what the routine looks like.
- Involve your children to actively make the chart (have them make the drawings or be in the pictures and have paste it together). It is more important that it looks like their work than having it be beautiful.
- As they learn to use the chart as a guide the adult can ask, “What is next on your chart?”
Routine and structure in our child’s lives provides them with a sense of safety and mastery that will stand them in good stead as they meet and deal with stress and change in their lives. More ideas for building routines.