Routines are fragile things. Switch up the structure of your day because of a trip, school break, or daylight saving time, and your family can veer off course.
True, it’s good for kids to learn to go with the flow. But “we all thrive on predictability and routine,” says Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and child development consultant in New York City. “Knowing what to expect helps us feel safe and secure.”
Plus, when your kids stick to a routine, they’re more likely to eat wisely and sleep soundly -- healthy choices that you'll want to become lifelong habits.
How can you get your family back on a schedule? Focus on a few key moments in every day to make healthy choices.
Start With Bedtime
The first piece of the puzzle is the last part of your day. “Sleep affects our ability to concentrate, helps us avoid mistakes, and keeps our immune system in top shape,” explains Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist in Sergeantsville, NJ, and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.
Start slowly by getting kids to bed 10 minutes earlier each night until you reach their ideal bedtime. Younger kids can make a chart that lets them track their progress. Older kids may be more likely to cooperate if you set an example and stick to an early bedtime for yourself.
You might describe how you didn’t do well at work one day because you stayed up too late the night before, Newman suggests. Then, “announce that you’re going to bed early too so you don’t have another terrible, awful day.”
Put Family Mealtime on the Schedule
As often as you can, get your family to sit down for meals together. With hectic work schedules and after-school events, sticking to the same mealtime can be a challenge. Still, find a way to label your dinner routines -- even if it changes day by day, Cohen suggests.
For instance, maybe the days your kids have soccer and will eat dinner earlier than usual are “sandwich days.” The evenings you work late are “babysitter days,” and nights you’re all together are “family dinner nights.” “Naming these different experiences makes the variety feel more routine,” Cohen says.
Be a Good Role Model
Your kids take cues from what YOU do. (Yes, even teens who pretend they don’t.) If your day’s all over the place, you eat your meals in the car, and sometimes don’t go to bed until the wee hours of the morning, “your child is absorbing that ‘push to the limit’ attitude and the habits that go with it,” Newman says. The more you set healthy limits for yourself, the more likely your child will be to follow suit.
One of the best things you can do for your kids’ health? Show them that staying active should be a part of everyday life. Once homework is done, limit their screen time to no more than 2 hours a day. Then, schedule a set time when your whole family moves together. Swim at the pool, play tag outside, or take a family hike. “Make it normal to take the stairs, walk from a farther parking spot, or rake leaves together,” Newman says.
Plan Ahead for Next Time
Don’t put off a family trip just because it will upset your schedule. Some kids are flexible and adjust easily. Others will get better at handling change the more they practice.
But to make your time away -- and return home -- smoother, “find a way to maintain some sense of continuity,” Cohen says. Even away from home, younger kids can be tucked in with their favorite stuffed animal and sung their usual good-night song. Older kids can follow their usual dinner and bedtime routines, even if they don’t happen at the same time as they do at home.
But remember: Don’t go overboard.
“As parents, you’re not running a training camp,” Newman says. “Nothing horrible will happen if you’re flexible from time to time.”