There are parents that live and die by the schedule. There are some parents that want a schedule for their little ones, but just can’t seem to stick to it. And then, there are parents that have no interest in maintaining a schedule.
No matter what type of parent you are, the holiday season can create chaos in your home. There are relatives that come to visit. You might be traveling out of town. There are parties and parties and more parties.
For little kids especially (those under five), the concept of time is really too abstract for them to comprehend. My three year old currently says that anything that happened already was “yesterday.”
“Yesterday, I went to the pumpkin patch” when she really is talking about something that we did a week ago. Sometimes she says, “we’ll be home in twenty minutes” but it’s not because she understands time, but because she is repeating something that I have said to someone else.
Schedules and routines give children a sense of predictability to their lives. They might not know that they go to bed at eight o’clock, but they do know that they go to bed after bath and a bedtime story. Being able to predict what is going to happen next gives young children a sense of safety.
And, new research shows that toddlers who go to bed after 8pm double their risk of obesity as adults. If you are one of those families with a toddler up past 8pm, don’t beat yourself up. Other statistics say that half of toddlers go to bed after 9pm. So, you are not in this alone!
When children feel a sense of control in their lives, their behavior is generally better. Routines help children to predict what is going to happen next so that they can mentally prepare (yep, even as toddlers) for what is going to happen next. They feel less anxious. You can learn more here about how to use transition warnings to reduce tantrums significantly.
You can also create small opportunities for decision making during a new routine. Things like allowing them to pick out their pajamas or choosing which story to read gives them a way to feel in control of their schedule. When we are traveling, a lot of of normal choices go out the window.
Find small opportunities for decision making. You want the window seat or the middle seat on the airplane? Would you like to give Uncle Timmy a hug or a high five before bed? You set up the choices and are you ultimately remain in control, but your child also feels like they have a say.
When relatives are visiting or you are traveling, you often lose your normal schedule and routine. Parents typically feel guilty about putting children to bed when Grandma is in town. Don’t! Resist the urge! It will likely backfire on you.
You can be flexible and allow up to 30 minutes of extra cuddles with Grandma before bedtime, but much more than that and your young children become irritable and cranky.
Take notice if your young child starts talking back more the later it gets in the night. Do they get a second burst of energy and don’t want to go to bed? Are they getting up more than usual to see what’s happening in the house? Small changes in the routine cause big disruptions in behaviors!
If you have a good bedtime routine and stick to it, you can plug your visiting relatives into it without disrupting the child. Now, Grandma can read the bedtime story or help pick out pajamas. The routine doesn’t change, but the person doing the task might. And, then you get a teeny bit of rest! (Maybe…)
Explain to relatives that the children are on a schedule and stick to your nightly routine as much as possible. Talk to young children in advance about the plans. Give them information about where they will be sleeping and what the rules are. (Even if your children are non-verbal, they often understand this information).
When you get there, show the child their sleeping space. Use feeling words to describe how they might be scared to sleep in a new room or space and let them know that is normal. Show them where you are going to be sleeping and talk to them about how you will check on them throughout the visit.
If you are traveling to a different time zone, this is extra hard. Expect the first day to be the toughest. That’s the day when your body feels like is time for dinner and your relatives are not the slightest bit hungry. Your child might have slept more or less than usual because of long car rides or airplane delays. One day is not a big deal.
The second day, you focus less on the actual clock and more on the structure of the day. Your toddler wakes up and then has breakfast, gets dressed and can play. It might be an hour later or earlier than normal.
Take note of physical cues. If you child looks tired, put them to bed. Give them transition warnings so that they are reminded of the routine. Transition warnings help young children understand a new schedule by reminding them of the activity they are doing now and what is coming next. You want to try to eliminate surprises as much as possible. Especially in new environments.
If you are making an effort to understand what changes in the routine feel like from your child’s point of view, you are more likely to respond empathetically. You can tell your child you know that it is difficult since everything is not exactly normal. That by itself, is helpful. If you are stressed, you often perceive typical behaviors as worse than normal and will likely respond more harshly.
Do your best to maintain a schedule and routine during the holidays and also enjoy the company around you. Know that when you child is just a little bit older, they will be more prepared to understand and cope with these changes.
Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org
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