Your little one is sitting on the floor happily playing with legos, building their most elaborate tower. Maybe they’re sitting on the sofa watching the best episode of their favorite show or sitting at their tiny table working on a Crayola masterpiece. Now here you, the parent, come telling them it’s time to go, to drop everything and put on their shoes, use the bathroom, and head out of the door. What happens next? If you are the parent of a toddler, you know the answer. THEY HAVE AN ABSOLUTE MELTDOWN. I mean, how dare you interrupt the most crucial moment of their lives with your silly plans. Or meal. Or nap. The nerve of us adults.
One of the reasons children have these sorts of meltdowns is that they don’t like to feel blindsided by being abruptly yanked from whichever enthralling activity with which they’ve been consumed. One of the most important things that I’ve incorporated and maintained as a parent has been creating structure and following it as often and as much as possible.
I practice several things to make life just a little more predictable and change more acceptable for my little ones. I believe that utilizing these tools leads to better sleep, more cooperation, and an overall happier child (and parent).
Create a schedule and stick to it
I’m a big advocate for sticking to a schedule. That includes a sleep, feeding, and play schedule, creating a typical daily structure that becomes predictable for your little ones. So it might be something like:
Brush teeth, wash up
Go for a walk,
Free playtime/ TV time while you make dinner
Bedtime snack/ free time
Brush your teeth
Read a story
Go to bed.
Doing some variation of the same thing every day and in mostly the same order allows your children to know precisely what comes next after each activity. It also tells their bodies when to be hungry and tired. And guess what, when your child knows when to sleep and then sleeps at that designated time, it makes your life so much easier. When your child knows when to eat and eats at that time, their bodies learn to become hungry then, making feedings so much easier.
I mean everything! They wake up in the morning “breakfast is in 20 minutes”, then 15 minutes later, “breakfast is in 5!” then again at 3 minutes, and finally at 1 minute… “OK, come eat!” When they’re almost finished eating breakfast, let them know what’s next. “We’re brushing teeth in five!” If your child gets free TV time, “turning the TV off in seven minutes.” When I’m counting down everything throughout the day, it eliminates the element of surprise, and the boys never feel blindsided. They always know what’s next and when it’s coming.
Give a heads up for unique plans and arrangements
If you have a trip coming up, a vacation, a birthday party approaching, or a play date, it’s nice to give your child a heads up. I usually tell the boys about a particular event about a week before the event and remind them every so often leading up to the event. It builds excitement and anticipation and mentally prepares them for whatever change it will cause, allowing them to go into it more relaxed.
When possible, give options… But not too many
While creating a structure for your child, it is also essential to create space and opportunities to feel a sense of independence. Doing this within the construct of structure is incredibly manageable and also beneficial. When snack times come up, offer a choice between two or three options. At storytime, let them pick out the book. At naptime, create excitement around getting to pick out which teddy they want to use for cuddling. Have different parks that you go to and allow your child to choose the one they wish to visit on a given day. Giving your child the space to make decisions is an excellent distraction from the fact that they’ve now had to change activities.
Have grace with yourself and your child
Sometimes life happens, and schedules become hard to follow. Maybe your little ones are having a bad day. You may be having an off day. Perhaps there is family visiting, and the days are disordered, or you’re just having a hectic week, and everything becomes disrupted. Permit yourself not to be perfect. Give your child permission not to be with it some days. I believe that being a stickler in anything makes anything very unfun, so give yourself some grace. Having the space will create great habits for yourself and your child is important and helpful, but these things don’t have to be a hard-fast rule all of the time. It’s OK to be flexible. I mean, we’re only human. Still, having this baseline established makes it very easy to get back into whenever you’re ready to.
I believe that incorporating these habits and rituals into your every day will make life so much easier and a lot more pleasant for yourself and your children. Structure creates a sense of security and sends signals in the body when things should be anticipated and expected. You may find that everyone is sleeping better and that it is easier to plan and carve out self-care time for yourself when you know when and how long you’ll be free. The result is a happier child and happier parents.