When I was eight years old, I developed a very elaborate goodnight kiss ritual for my father and me. It was a specific sequence of actions—kissing a right elbow, then the left; rubbing noses; kissing one cheek, then the other. All together there were about a dozen steps to this goodnight kiss. Ok, so you’d be right if you’re thinking that, even at that young age, I was more than a bit controlling with a well-developed type-A personality. But there was something else influencing my need for elaborate, well-structured, controlled routines. At the time, my mother was in the hospital battling cancer. When she died, that goodnight routine took on even more importance.
I remember one evening, my father was on the telephone and I was waiting in bed getting increasingly more anxious for the goodnight kiss (feeling like Llama, Llama Red Pajama). When he finally arrived, I had worked myself up to tears. He asked me why this was so important to me. I can still remember perfectly as a young child, what it felt like to be asked that question and what my response was. I said, “I’m worried that someone is going to take you away and replace you with someone who looks exactly like you. But I’ll know the truth, when he doesn’t know how to kiss me goodnight.”
Now with some adult perspective I, of course, realize that my explanation was a child’s way to articulate fear of loss of another parent and my need for consistency and something that I could control. Rituals and routines are necessary for all people to organize and make sense of life experiences. They not only guide how we move through our daily lives (our morning routine before work and school) but they also provide ways for us to mark significant life events in meaningful ways (the ritual of a wedding to celebrate the union of two people; the ritual of a funeral to mourn the loss of someone; the ritual of a baby shower to prepare for the arrival of a new life). While rituals and routines vary across cultures, it is important that we value their significance and understand that they become even more meaningful during times like these.
Like the example of my goodnight kiss ritual with my father, routines and rituals become even more important to young children during stressful times. Whether it is the birth of sibling, the loss of a family member, a move to a new city, a change in a parent’s work schedule, or their world being upended by a global pandemic, stressful times can leave children feeling anxious and uncertain. Providing consistent routines gives children some certainty, something they can count on, something they can trust will happen. The predictability of routines can help to reduce stress. Making it a nurturing experience can provide children with extra emotional support and a stronger connection with a trusted loved one.
Here are some things we can do:
Continue whatever familiar rituals and routines you can. Keep morning and nighttime routines the same to bookend the day with predictability. Children already know what to do during these times and they understand what is expected of them. This gives them an opportunity to feel competent and in control. This goes for rituals, too. If you have waffle Wednesday breakfasts (like we do in my house) or play cards together on Tuesday nights or all watch a movie together on Fridays, continue your pre-established family rituals wherever you can.
Provide new consistent daily routines. If you are balancing working from home with providing childcare and homeschooling for your children, a daily routine becomes even more important. Predictable routines throughout the day allow children to know what will happen next. It provides order and helps to set expectations. What does lunch time look like for the family now that you’re all together for the whole day? Try as much as possible to repeat the same pattern to provide a sense of security for children. Enroll your children in coming up with new routines when you can. When I was teaching preschool, there was a father and son who would hug and kiss at drop off and then dad would turn around and his son would push him out the door. If you are transitioning from breakfast to quiet play and work time, maybe you have a “separation” routine with your child as you go to your desk and they sit at the kitchen table.
Create new rituals. Create new rituals such as Walking Wednesdays (a nature walk every Wednesday), doing the Rainy Day Blues dance (a fun song and dance the family does together every time it rains), or singing a made up song about cereal every time your family starts a new box. You are together a lot more now which will allow you to create more family rituals and help to keep life joyful!