Deviations in routine can be hard for children – especially during the holidays. It can be such a fun time of year, but it can be hard for kids because things that are usually predictable and scheduled in their lives get thrown off. Traveling, time zones, staying in new places, having company come visit… all of these things mess with very important things in their little worlds! Here are some helpful tips for helping kids manage changes in routine throughout the Holiday Season.
1. Adjust your own expectations.
Take a minute and assess your own expectations of your child and make sure it’s realistic. Their nap times are likely being disrupted. Bedtime may be pushed around. They may be having more sugar than normal. They may be having people in their space more than they’re used to.
It’s not fair to have the same level of expectations for their behavior as you would on a normal day.
Think of how irritable you can get when you’re hungry or when you miss out on sleep. If we as adults can have a hard time being nice and regulating ourselves when we’re out of our normal routine, think of how much harder it may be for a child. Acknowledge the fact that your expectations for their behavior is going to have to be lowered some during this season.
2. Talk with them about what to expect.
We make plans and we know what to expect, but sometimes we forget that our kids might like to know those plans too. Even babies who aren’t verbal yet can benefit from knowing what the plan is.
Think about it from a child’s perspective. Their world is relatively predictable. They probably wake up at a similar time of day every day. They probably eat their meals at roughly the same time every day. They probably have a variety of activities that they do on a daily basis. They know who they can expect to see in their house. They know where their favorite toys are and where their bed is. They know where the bathroom is. Their world is predictable. They know what to expect.
Whether you’re traveling somewhere else or having out of town guests come to stay with you, it throws your kids’ little world off kilter! You may know that you’re going to Aunt Suzie’s house for four days and then coming home, but if you haven’t communicated that to your child, how are they supposed to know that? You may know what room you’re going to sleep in at Aunt Suzie’s, or that you brought your child’s favorite toys with you, but your child may not.
If you’re having company come to your house, your child suddenly sees new faces in the house every morning when he wakes up and he may be unsure of how long it will last. Suddenly his play room may be taken over by suitcases, and his favorite toys may have been moved around to make space for someone else. All of these things can make a young child feel insecure.
Talk with your child about what to expect. Even if your child is not verbal yet, tell them about where you’re going or who’s coming over. Tell them as much detail about the arrangements as possible so that they are as aware as they can be.
3. Increase predictability: Make a visual schedule.
Any little bit that you can do to increase the predictability in your child’s day will help build their sense of security. Use a calendar to show your child how long the visit will last. Cross days off as you count down to the visit, and continue to mark them during the visit.
Even though schedules are usually thrown off during the holidays, you can create as much predictability as possible by creating a visual schedule for the day. You can download a free printable calendar and schedule cards below!
Keep it simple. Since there may be a lot of unpredictability in the day, only put the things you KNOW will happen. For instance, you know your child will eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You may know that your child will have play time, and have a rest time.
Introduce a “wild card” that you can use to add in when things come up that weren’t planned. Teach your child about the “wild card” ahead of time and explain that sometimes things come up that weren’t planned. Sometimes these are fun things, but sometimes they can be disappointing or frustrating if it interferes with things we were expecting to do. Teach them some healthy ways to handle their frustration if that happens. For more tips on teaching children to regulate big emotions see this post.
4. Maintain the “sacred” parts of your child’s regular routine.
The routine may not be entirely within your control, but adhere to your regular routines as much as possible. If you have any sacred routines at home (like reading stories before bed or cuddling before nap time), try to maintain them in the midst of the craziness of the season. If you are not going to be able to maintain them, explain that to your child so that they know what to expect, and they also know that regular activities will resume once the visit is over.
5. Incorporate some activities just for them.
Whether you’re traveling somewhere or entertaining out of town guests, it is easy to plan all of your activities around what the adults want to do. Kids are already being thrown off their routines. If they are constantly being toted around from one activity to another that isn’t “kid-friendly,” it is a recipe for disaster. If the types of places you’re going require you to say “don’t touch that,” “use your inside voice,” “sit up straight,” “stand still,” and “be quiet,” be very aware of how long you are staying there! While there is nothing wrong with teaching your child that some places require a certain level of decorum, you need to make sure your expectations are appropriate for your child’s age and developmental level.
Balance outings and activities that require a high level of self control with activities that are geared towards children and allow them to run, play, and get messy.
6. Pay attention to their physical needs – real food, fluids, physical activity, and calming activity.
This sounds so simple, but it’s easy to overlook when you’re out of your normal routines. Pay special attention to making sure that your child has real food (no, regular snacking out of the cookie jar doesn’t count) and adequate fluids. While the giant brunch that you ate at 10:00 AM might still have you feeling full, it’s possible that your child didn’t tank up any more than normal, so their meltdown at 1:00 PM may be because they’re hungry. Ideally children should have a rotation of a balanced snack, water, physical activity, and calming activity every few hours.
7. Pay attention to their emotional needs.
Whether we are entertaining out of town guests or visiting with family members that we don’t see all the time, it can be consuming for us as parents. It’s easy to go throughout the day without emotionally connecting with your child at all. It’s easy to expect our children to not interrupt when we’re talking to other adults, or to have good manners, but sometimes we need to take a step back and make sure that our children do have access to us when they need us. Children aren’t as good as adults at regulating emotions on their own. They may need our help. They may need a hug or our undivided attention for a few minutes in order to be reassured that they are still important to us even in the midst of all the activity.
For simple ideas to fill your child’s love tank, check out this post.
8. Don’t neglect a quiet time.
While naps and bedtime may be off, do your best to implement some sort of calming quiet time midday – especially if you’re around people the rest of the day.
Even though it’s fun for our children to see relatives and friends that they don’t get to play with all the time, it can be very overstimulating and exhausting to be with people constantly. This is ESPECIALLY true if your child is having to share toys and get along with other kids for a longer period of time than they are accustomed to!
Don’t wait for the meltdown to hit. Help your kids manage changes in routine by being proactive & taking your child away from the group for a quiet time where they can get recharged. This doesn’t have to be a nap – in fact, that may be impossible to arrange! This can look like ten minutes in another room reading a book with you, taking a walk outside away from the noise (bundled up of course!), taking a short drive, or playing a quiet game in a separate room.
Holiday activities are more fun when our kids are happy and well regulated! Even though some parts of your normal routines may be off, you can still be proactive by increasing predictability, maintaining as much of their routine as possible, and making sure their needs are still being met.
Don’t forget to download your free calendar and daily schedule cards for an easy visual tool to help your child know what to expect!