Dubai: It’s 9:05pm, five minutes past my nine-year-old’s bedtime. If he doesn’t sleep within the next ten minutes, it will affect his entire routine the next morning, making him late for school. But, here he is, tucking himself into bed holding his latest “favourite book”. As much as I hate telling him to put the book away, I explain to him that it’s too late and we can read it the next day before 9pm.
For me this strict bedtime and the few other routines in my child’s day-to-day life were a practical solution to ensure things get done on time, but, it was only when I was assigned this story that I learnt that childhood routines help build resilience in children.
Resilience is the ability that children need in order to overcome day-to-day challenges and thrive. It could be something as simple as adapting to a new classroom, dealing with failures and criticism, dealing with unfriendly peers, or refusing to give up when a task seems too difficult.
Now, which parent does not want their child to be resilient? Curious, I got in touch with some children’s mental health experts in the UAE to find out more.
Routines help both parents and children
Speaking to Gulf News, Dr Catherine Musa, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist, explained: “Routines are very important in a child’s psychological development. Having a routine helps to bring structure, consistency, and comfort to a child’s life, as well as provides a sense of normality and security. Children tend to fear the unknown, whether it’s a new vegetable on their plate or a big life change like moving to a different house or welcoming a new sibling. And while change is a learning opportunity, it can also create stress.”
Routines are very useful to parents as well, she added. “Although they may take quite a lot of effort to create in the beginning, once set, they have many benefits: they help you feel more organised and in control, which lowers your stress levels. Regular routines can help you feel like you’re doing a good job as a parent and thus improve your self-esteem and confidence.
“Routines are very important in a child’s psychological development. Having a routine helps to bring structure, consistency, and comfort to a child’s life, as well as provides a sense of normality and security.
"They also help your family get through daily tasks more efficiently and therefore have more free time. Routines also often mean you don’t have to sort out disputes and make decisions. For example, if Sunday night is pizza night, no one needs to argue about what’s for dinner.”
Dr Ozan Akbas, another clinical psychologist based in Dubai, explained: “Most recent studies strongly state the benefits of early routine establishment in children. They teach the child to perform an action and the responsibilities that come with that action.
“When children are in predictable environments tailored with routines they feel safer, which helps both physical and psychological maturing. Children who grow up with these routines in place tend to do their tasks without constant reminders. Taking responsibility for their actions helps them build competency and mastery which in later adult life develops into initiative and independence.”
“She notices it when it’s close to bedtime and observes what her parents and younger sibling are up to – when she sees that my husband and I are clearing up for the night and I’ve taken her baby sister to bed to change her into bedtime clothes, she now very calmly comes over and asks, ‘Is it time to go to bed?’
“This is a huge change that I have noticed in just a couple of weeks, where I did not have to give her any instructions – she simply knew what we do and seemed to find it comforting and easy to follow.”
How does it help later on, in adulthood?
Dr Diana Maatouk, another clinical psychologist working in Dubai, explained how having a family routine during childhood helps later on in adulthood.
Routines can help children cope better during their teenage years or adulthood when they face inevitable changes and uncertainty in their life.
“Routines set out the way families organise themselves to get things done and spend time together regularly. They are important for children – and later on for the adults they become – since they gradually internalise a sense of safety and belonging. At the same time, they emphasise the importance of relying on others (the relationship with family members first, and later with other adults). That sense of safety within a predictable home environment can help children cope better during their teenage years or adulthood when they face inevitable changes and uncertainty in their life. Growing up in a predictable family system gives adults the security they need to know that things will turn out just fine, without too much worry.”
How can a lack of routines affect them in adulthood?
Studies have shown that adults, who had good routines as children, will be better with time management, self-discipline, and focus, and have better emotional boundaries and emotional regulation.
Dr Maatouk also explained how a lack of family routines could lead to chaos and unpredictability in a child’s life and affect them later on in life. She said: “A lack of routine during childhood can often lead to more anxiety in adulthood due to an intolerance to uncertainty, difficulty to maintain a healthy mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. In fact, a lack of routine growing up can significantly affect the capacity of an adult to regulate emotions, adapt to changes, and feel safe in the world. That sense of lack of safety, along with the trouble to internalise enough difficult emotions can potentially lead to an increased level of anxiety, which in the long run might lead to depressive symptoms in adulthood.”
The antidote to uncertainty
Dr Summer Fakhro, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert added: “When a person lacks routines they can become easily distracted, find themselves procrastinating for long periods, and have difficulty with time management and self-discipline. It naturally follows that if a person is unable to manage their day or tasks, they tend to struggle with frustration, feelings of being overwhelmed, and anxiety. People who are not adjusted to good routines or boundaries often feel uncontained and can therefore struggle with emotional disorders like anxiety. It is said that the formula for anxiety is uncertainty coupled with powerlessness, and the antidote to uncertainty and powerlessness is having routines.”
People who are not adjusted to good routines or boundaries often feel uncontained and can therefore struggle with emotional disorders like anxiety.
Better now than later
Routines can begin from the first day of a child’s life, but don’t worry even if your child does not currently have a routine – it’s not too late. Routines can be implemented at any point, the experts said.
Mandeep Jassal, a behavioural therapist in Dubai explained: “Through time and training, children will internalise the routines that were set up with their parents. Of course, this is a … tedious process but …when over, the child will also understand and see the benefits of the routines.”
Routines are not established in one day... this is a diligent and sometimes tedious process but the rewards are highly appreciated.
Tasks to include
She suggested: “One of the most beneficial daily routines for children include getting dressed and ready for school in the morning, eating meals with family, spending time talking and playing as a family, reading books or storytelling and a ‘wind down’ bedtime ritual like having a bath and reading.
Don’t make routines rigid
“It is important not to be so rigid with any of the recommendations, these should act as a guide and it is important to have flexibility with your child, particularly at times when they are not feeling well or unable to stick to the usual routines,” highlighted Dr Ozan Akbas.
When setting routines, we mustn't overburden the child or treat him like another adult - they are still only children after all.
“It is important to take into account their sensitivities and temperament. If we are talking about preschoolers, then brushing their teeth, getting ready in the morning, eating meals, having play times, or reading books before bed might be appropriate. School-age children might have more complex routines, such as taking part in after-school activities like sports or a hobby of their choosing, helping with housework such as setting the dinner table… or helping with laundry.”
a) Routines that involve spending time together like reading a story together before bed, having family meals, or playing games, help strengthen your shared beliefs and values, and build a sense of belonging and togetherness in your family.
b) Chores, like helping to prepare meals or even just laying the table can help the child or teenager to develop a sense of responsibility as well as certain skills, which in turn, can help them build self-confidence. It is a good idea to stop supervising chores as soon as possible. Trusting the child or teenager with the chores will give them a sense of independence and again reinforce their self-confidence.
c) Healthy habit routines, like brushing their teeth, taking medicine regularly, exercising, or washing hands after using the toilet are examples of necessary daily routines good for the child’s health. For example, children who wash their hands more regularly might be less likely to get colds and other common illnesses.
For working parents
As a parent with long working hours, one of the challenges I face is – how do I ensure my child is following a routine when both parents are away from home. While we have a live-in nanny for our child, is it possible to ensure routines without entirely depending on the nanny?
Dr Musa told me that for a routine to work I must include my child in the routine planning. She said: “Let him participate by giving him a choice of activities, the time, or the steps of a routine when possible. Children like to be part of the decision-making process. When they have choices and a say in what is part of their routine, it’s harder for them to refuse to do it. It also builds confidence. They feel like they can do what they need to do without your help — or with just a little help.”
Also, be realistic about time and priorities, she added. “Sometimes children don’t follow a routine because it’s too stressful to get it done in the set time frame. Do a run-through to see exactly how long it takes.”
Dr. Musa added that routines need to be explained to children in very precise terms. “Be clear in setting out the order of what needs to happen and at what time, always in a collaborative manner asking him his advice when it’s pertinent. Be very specific when you give directions.
Be patient, revise tasks
Abigail Macapagal, a Filipina mum based in Abu Dhabi has been trying to establish routines but finds it hard for her children to follow through: “I have been trying to set a schedule for my son for around a year, we speak about the tasks to do, we have even written them down a few times but it is rarely followed through more than two days.”
Dr. Musa said establishing a routine won’t happen overnight. “You will probably have to remind your son regularly in the beginning to complete his chores and follow the routines. The point here is to develop habits, and habits take time to cultivate. Be patient while he adjusts —it will be worth it later.
“After a few weeks your son should be completing his daily activities without issue and, as the parent, you become a partner in that routine, rather than the person who is telling the child to ‘do this’ and ‘not do this’. However, you may well notice that some routines are not working. Evaluate why, talk about it, and evaluate what can be changed or even drop the routine altogether. A routine is meant to help the family, not create conflict.”
Use visual schedules
Margaret M a Sharjah-based mum said she gets her daughter to make a time-table and decorate it herself. “I used to have a timetable as a child, so I thought it will help my daughter too. I tried to make it a fun experience, where together we divided her day into segments and made a chart. She then decorated it and stuck it on her cupboard.”
Dr Summer Fakhro said this is an excellent way to get children to like and follow their routines. She said: “In a parent’s absence (and in their presence too) using visual schedules is a highly effective tool for implementing routines and keeping them consistent. Seeing tasks in a visual schedule and being able to tick off the items on the list helps them prepare mentally for what’s coming next, and gives them ownership over their schedule. Finally, using something visual eliminates the verbal instruction or repetition of instructions given by the adult, which can be a trigger for both the adult and the child. Instead, the child can be guided to check their routine to see what they need to do next.
Educate the nanny
“It’s very important that all caregivers are well aware of the routine in place and have a good understanding of the value of implementing it. It is important to also educate the nanny about the importance of routines because oftentimes it is them who are enforcing the house rules. Let them know that it is not punitive but helpful and containing for a child to have routine and rhythm to their day and night, even if they argue or complain about it.”
Parents need to check back and follow up
Dr Diana Maatouk added: “Parents can reach out to the children during the day to make sure the tasks have been accomplished. They can also create a shared board in the house to organise the tasks that should be done by each member of the family. On their return home, parents can review if the routines have been followed as requested and reward accomplished tasks. It’s also important for parents to create some rituals or special moments with their children: for example, having dinner together as a family – making sure to not spend time on their phones or any electronic device – reading a story in bed at the same time at night while reminding their children of how loved they are.”
What to do if a child refuses to follow established routines?
Some parents might find it hard to establish routines with children who refuse to follow set instructions.
Dr Maatouk said: “For children who resist change and find it more difficult to follow some routines, it’s important to consistently and repetitively. Here are some steps parents can take.”
1) Start with simplifying the tasks and offer lots of encouragement. Parents should try to be present for the first two weeks of a new routine until it becomes a habit. Since a child who refuses a routine might feel that he is losing control over his environment, parents can try to give him choices: for example, if a child has to wear his uniform to preschool, the parent can ask: “Do you want to wear this pair of socks or the other one?”
2) Engage the child in the process of creating a routine so he/she feels involved in it. For example, a parent can create a simple list of tasks with the child.
3) Divide a simple task into multiple small steps. For example, if a child refuses to brush his/her teeth, the parent can ask the child to sit on the step stool first while thanking him/her for listening. The parent can then ask the child to put the toothpaste on the toothbrush to make him/her feel in control of the process and thank him/her again for doing it, etc.
4) Finally, when a child resists a new routine, parents should stay consistent but not rigid. Some days will be difficult, especially at the beginning: it will require a lot of flexibility. It’s important for parents to try again calmly and to lead by example as well by maintaining a routine as a way to model that routine for their kids.
Dr Summer Fakhro added: “It is important to give children age-appropriate control and responsibility over their day or activities.”
Dr Musa added: “While establishing and maintaining routines has a wealth of benefits, it is also vital to remain flexible. Spontaneity and creativity are important factors in a child’s life."