When I was pregnant with my daughter one of the best pieces of advice I received was given to me by a mommy friend. With a knowing look on her sleep-deprived face she said, “Annabelle please do yourself a favor and remember EVERYTHING IS A PHASE!” Urging her to tell me more she explained that nothing lasts for long when it comes to your child’s habits. In our Mindful Parenting Group this is a key concept. They may go through weeks of sleeping through the night or eating green vegetables, but rest assured, at some point they will no longer do the very thing you came to rely on. On the flip side, just when you thought your child was going to turn into a cheerio or a piece of cheese, from their love of all foods white and yellow, they end up surprising you and trying something new.
The concept that nothing stays the same can be deeply comforting on the one hand or completely anxiety producing on the other depending on how we look at it. Routine is of course helpful for parents and children but all routines need some flexibility to adapt to the natural changes in development our children go through. A child once sleeping peacefully through the night may start having a hard time drifting off because he now feels scared of the dark or is experiencing separation anxiety as he becomes more aware of his surroundings. A routine that is rigid and offers no room for changes like these can leave parents feeling frustrated and angry when their child is no longer following the rules and their child feeling unable to communicate his needs.
Often there is a disconnect that happens where the child is not on board with the routine and the parent has not figured out why yet. This limbo can be hard on parents with expectations that their child follow the plan and hard on the child who wants to grow in a different direction. In my experience working with families, this is an issue that comes up time and time again. Children who once were perfectly compliant around tooth brushing or bath time now want to explore their autonomy by saying no, screaming, or peeing in the bath. At the end of a long day a parent who did not get the memo about their child’s developmental shift begins to despair, lose patience or wonder if their child will ever be clean again.
Here are 5 tips for dealing with unexpected changes in routine:
1) Remember that everything is a phase. Try not to get too attached to your child’s habits so that when they change you are not surprised and are ready to adapt. In the words of Queen Elsa, “let it go!” See below for a hilarious mom’s parody.
2) Engage in a little self-care right before entering a situation that is difficult. Taking a few deep breaths and regulating your own emotions going into it can help co-regulate a flailing child.
3) Regulate your blood sugar with a snack in order to buy a valuable extension in your patience as you approach a difficult situation.
4) Disengage from power struggles to avoid escalating a situation. If your child won’t do want you want her to do be careful about becoming too rigid in your demands. The less flexible you are, the less flexible they are. Our children tend to mirror our behavior so if you want them to cooperate you need to show them the way.
5) Be flexible! This does not mean be a pushover. It is possible to have boundaries that can give a little here and there without breaking completely. Sharing your thought process with your child can be helpful so that they know why you are being flexible on this occasion.
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.