Why families need routines (even in the summer)

A woman, a man, and a child at different points on a clock.
Routines provide children with feelings of comfort, safety, and well-being while also helping them develop a sense of responsibility. (Images: Adobe Stock. Illustration: David Chrisom, Boston Children’s Hospital)

They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Maybe no one has realized this more over the last few years than children and young people who lost all semblance of normalcy with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if the benefits of their day-to-day routines were more subliminal in the “before times,” families everywhere felt the impact of the loss once their lives were so dramatically disrupted. But why?

With summer upon us and kids once again away from a regular schedule, we’re breaking down why routines are important and how they help equip children and young adults with social-emotional tools they’ll need throughout life.

Why routines matter

Routines provide children with feelings of comfort, safety, and well-being while also helping them develop a sense of responsibility. And when given a foundation of knowing what to expect and what’s expected of them, children grow to be better able to adapt to everyday challenges and stressors, as well as life’s bigger uncertainties. Here’s how:

1. Routines help kids feel in charge and reduce power struggles
Kids crave autonomy and a sense of control. Achieving these feelings lessens their urge to rebel or to be adversarial. Parents can capitalize on this early by establishing simple routines such as teeth-brushing in the morning, handwashing before dinner, and backpack prep before school. Because — over time — children will learn to brush their teeth, wash their hands, etc., without reminders or arguments. Mastering these tasks helps them feel empowered while accomplishing healthy habits and expectations their parents set up.

2. Routines help build connections
Just as children benefit from predictable environments with predictable adults, parents and caregivers benefit from regular engagement with their children. Building little rituals into your family’s routines can help achieve both needs. Luckily, many families already have rituals in place without realizing it: Pizza for dinner on Fridays, religious service on Sundays, grocery shopping on Mondays. Practices like these can help children bookend their day around standing events while allowing parents to slow down and be accessible to their children. Adding responsibilities — even small ones like helping set the table or picking out a book to read at bedtime — fosters cooperation and connection.

Navigating summer’s upheaval

“I remind parents this time of year that most kids will be glad to be out of school, but they still benefit from having regular routines,” says Erica Lee, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital. “I recommend families try to maintain healthy sleep, exercise, and diet habits over the summer, with some wiggle room, of course! Even when they’re not in school, the regularity helps kids keep their bodies and minds in good shape and eases the transition back to school in the fall.”

Dr. Lee also suggests routines as a way to alleviate summer boredom, including giving kids options to choose from when they can’t think of something to do.

She recommends creating a menu of activities that balance downtime (such as reading or screen time) with more active things like sports or time with friends.

For teens and older kids, Dr. Lee suggests helping them to make their own choices about how to spend their time — within the limits of what their parents or caregivers allow.

“Keep an open dialogue,” Dr. Lee says. “Teens often want more independence, so talk about good decision-making and come up with a plan for what your teen should do if they find themselves in trouble or feel unsafe.”

Realistic expectations

“Part of maintaining a beneficial routine for your family is understanding that your routine may look and work differently than other families,” Dr. Lee says. “And that’s okay!”

It’s also important to remember that routines can easily go awry: Kids (and parents) can have an off day, and unexpected situations or events can easily pop up. Dr. Lee reminds families not to let these minor hiccups throw everyone off course.

“Children don’t need to have every moment of the day planned,” Dr. Lee says, “But predictability goes a long way toward enhancing their sense of certainty, safety, and connection.”

Learn more about the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital or explore other topics around keeping children healthy and thriving.

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