By Casey Waugh
For adults, a new routine usually means adding something else to our plate, typically in the realm of what we “should do” like exercising or eating green veggies at every meal. For kids, while there may be big shifts in daily life that need an adjustment to routine like starting school for the first time, or a big move, or life with a new baby, but the small routines that are buried in the every day are the ones I want to touch on today. These seemingly inconsequential things – like how they get dressed in the morning for school, bath time, mealtime – are actually super powerful building blocks for your child’s sense of safety and security, resiliency, and independence. Stay with me here…
Children of all ages are going through absolutely tremendous growth in short periods of time. Not only do they physically grow (seriously, I just bought you an entire wardrobe, how does it not fit) they are growing cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Tolerance of change is the basis of resiliency. So how can we give our kids the support they need to build that resiliency and flexibility? We give them consistency where it counts most… at home.
Clear and consistent expectations, boundaries, and daily routines give our kids something to rest on. Unexpected change puts the central nervous system in a more “high alert” state because it needs to continuously reassess “what is this, do I know it, is it safe?” Our kids face this DAILY when the kid in front of them in line steps on their toe, or the new bus driver turns the wrong way. Our kids build their personal sense of safety in the presence of loving and present adults (parents!). When kids know what to expect from you, their constant, their central nervous system is more able to regulate and tolerate life when they are apart from you. Knowing that after dinner we watch a show, then get a bath, get jammies on, brush teeth, and read 3 books is a consistent routine in my house. Does that mean my 4 year old readily complies every night? Heck no! But, my response to his refusals is just as consistent as the routine itself. When we have a particularly tough day and the tears are rolling and teeth brushing is apparently equivalent to death, I’m still there for my son, co-regulating but holding my ground. We will still brush our teeth. I will still love him. I’m not going anywhere even when he has big feelings about it.
If you feel like you don’t know where to start with routines for your littles, give yourself some credit and grace because we all have some semblance of routine. We eat, usually 3 times a day, and we do things like wake up and go to sleep. Your routines may be varied right now, and your response to your kids when they push back or refuse may be varied. I encourage you to start with the big routines – meals and sleep. These are super regulators in our bodies, and getting those under control is KEY.
1. Serve meals and snacks around the same time each day. And hey, parents… eat with your kids!! Meals are social events and there is a ton of research supporting family meals and their impact on kids’ mental health, relationship with food, and emotional well-being. It is worth it!
2. Build a solid bedtime routine that gives you roughly the same bedtime each night. *I honestly struggle with this one because on daycare days, 4-year-old naps at school and parties until 10 pm, but on non-daycare days, he’s asleep by 8. But… the steps we take to get to bed are the same, the timing just shifts depending on that freaking nap.
3. Use tools like timers and visual schedules to increase engagement with your kids and move something abstract like a multi-step process or time passing into a tangible thing they can hold and see. Simple, simple, simple written schedules or pictures of a shirt, pants, and shoes (regardless how poorly you draw them) can be helpful to move kids between transitions that can otherwise lead to a fight. These tangible tools also remove some of the “Mom quit telling me what to do!” and instead puts it on the object… “Do you hear that? The timer says it’s time to clean up!”
4. Be consistent with your responses. This takes a bit of planning and foresight into where you might have some refusal issues from your littles, but have faith and hold strong! There is so much value in standing your ground, especially surrounding non-negotiables like teeth brushing. The “broken record” trick is a personal favorite because it lets your kids know you mean what you say and you say what you mean. The broken record is something that can be useful for kids of all ages, but can be particularly annoying to older kids. But that’s why it works! Here’s an example.
a. 8-year-old wants to play video games but needs to do his homework first. As the parent, your broken record response to push back about the homework could be “first homework, then video games” repeated with no change or enticement into battle until your kid gives up because they see you’re not swaying to his demands. Another favorite is “I love you too much to argue” on repeat when they are tempting you into a back and forth over a boundary you clearly set.
Parents, your kids have EVERY RIGHT to push back on your boundaries. And they will. But you have EVERY RIGHT to hold them to it. Your consistency and love regardless of their big feelings allows them to feel those feelings without fear of rejection. Does this mean you can never sway from bedtime routine? No. Let’s be realistic here. Some nights (hopefully soon) you will go out with your girlfriends and a sitter will put them to bed, and maybe that night they eat ice cream after they brush their teeth and sleep in their sister’s bed. But hey, the next night, they can rest easy in the fact that you will be there, ready to spray that monster spray in the closet and check under the bed and kiss them goodnight. Routines in our kiddo’s lives gives them a solid foundation of consistency to jump off of into flexible and independent adults because they are secure in themselves, their capabilities, and your never-failing love.
If you have questions or concerns about development or building routines with your little loves, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on IG and TikTok at @ottimecasey, or on my YouTube channel and FB group, OT Time with Casey.