Routine: Too Little, Too Much or Interrupted?

       You slept through your alarm and now, in spite of starting in on your third cup of coffee, your mind is in a fog and you just can’t put your thoughts together as you sit down for your usual morning conference call.    

     You had big plans for a family trip to a tropical destination, and instead of spending time on a beach, you’re wistfully scrolling through pictures of a beach from your laptop while in quarantine.

       We can all identify with the disorienting affects of disruption to our routine or plans.  Stress, anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, or sadness are common responses to a sudden loss of control over our lives and choices. 

       But how many of us are much less sympathetic when our child breaks down in tears or shows anger when their choices are taken away or their plans interrupted?  Although we may be tempted to be dismissive of their anxiety when they are dropped off and grandma’s house instead of their usual daycare, (especially when we are comparing it to a major life change we are facing), we need to understand that within the child’s world, these are significant changes.  And, if we’re honest, the smallest changes in our own worlds can also be significant enough to disorient us!  The barista got your order wrong?     

Importance of Routine

     Humans thrive on positive routine (predictability).   “How you wake up each day and your morning routine (or lack thereof) dramatically affects your levels of success in every single area of your life,” says Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning.  Experts agree, listing the benefits of routine: more effective stress management, better sleep, healthier eating, a more active lifestyle and a happier you! 

     Early childhood (birth to age six) is no exception.   A fifty-year study on the affect of routine and ritual actually found that children who have predictable routines have better overall health.  In fact, routine was a predicator of shorter bouts of respiratory infections in infants!  Routines also contribute to improved social skills and academic success in children.

baby crawling on floor at preschool

     Young children thrive on repetition within a positive, nurturing environment. Routine contributes to feelings of security, as a child knows that his or her needs will be met.   A well-ordered environment where the child knows exactly where things are, and consistent boundaries contribute to feelings of security which, in turn, build self-sufficiency, confidence and good decision-making skills.   Because of this, routine helps eliminate power struggles between parent and child!   Last, a consistent routine actually helps a child build the skills necessary to navigate changes and disruptions!

     It is possible, however, for parents to be excessively controlling about their child’s environment and routine.  If you’ve heard the term “helicopter” parenting, you probably have a picture in your mind of what this looks like! 

Routine ≠ Rigid Scheduling

Routine does not mean scheduling every minute of your child’s day.  Attempts to micromanage typically cause stress for caregivers and the child, who may become irritable or anxious in response.

Routine should include downtime and space to think and create: “freedom with boundaries”.  Children thrive on free play, and boredom is often the mother of creativity! 

Routine should also be adjustable, when needed.  The routine needs to work for you and your family, not vice versa.

You should also consider your child’s individual personality, temperament and development when creating routines.  

  • What interests does your child have? What do they enjoy doing? 
  • Do they get overwhelmed by the frequency of this activity?
  • Do they thrive with the frequency of their social interactions?
  • Am I putting too much pressure on my child to meet my expectations? Are my expectations age-appropriate? 
  • Does my child have enough downtime?
  • Does my child know how to entertain themselves for age-appropriate periods of time?
  • Does this activity put stress on our family?
  • Does this contribute to the overall health of our family?
child learning to count at preschool

Life Interrupted

Change is a part of life, and there are times when flexibility is required and healthy.  Resilience is one of the important life skills your child will need to become well-adjusted, healthy adults! 

 Instead of panicking when your child’s routine is interrupted, you can help guide them safely through the change.

Try to anticipate and communicate changes so that your child will not be surprised.  “This is what is going to happen tomorrow.”  “In fifteen minutes, we will be leaving the park.”  “When Mommy gets a new job, we may move to a new house!” 

Talk your child through the change in a confident, concise, age-appropriate manner.  Remember, you set the tone. If you are stressed or panicked, your child will absorb and respond accordingly.  Keep positive about the changes.

Offer extra connection time to help your child return to a sense of stability. Providing them with extra connection time is not the same thing as trying to assuage our child’s anxiety with “things” such as sugary treats, playdates, extra screen time, etc.  Remember, boundaries help children feel safe – too much freedom and too many choices can overwhelm your child and make them feel even more anxious.  Your child may be asking for ice cream, but what do they really need right now?  They may need some time playing catch with Mom in the backyard, or cuddles and story time with Dad. 

Be patient if your child seems to be clingy, whiny, emotional, angry or dependent during changes.  Your child may not be able to communicate what they are feeling, so learn to look at these things as symptoms of what is going on in your child’s mind, and ask yourself, “What need are they expressing right now?”   Remember to communicate both reassurance and confidence in your response.

Ensure your child is getting sufficient sleep and healthy foods.  They may suddenly need more sleep during big life changes.  Sleep and nutrition are critical in supporting your child’s mental wellness.

teacher and students at preschool


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