Keep On Keeping On
From the moment our children are born we are told about the importance of routines, but why are routines so vital for healthy child development – and all-round mental health – and how can they help bereaved families cope better with their grief?
As we head towards the summer holidays – hot on the heels of a long period of disruption to our regular routines and schooling during COVID–19 lockdown – we want to take a moment to think about how we can support our children and young people to cope better with their ever-changing worlds. Maintaining healthy routines when coping with the hard task of grieving is one very simple way we can do this.
If your family has had to cope with serious illness and/or bereavement during lockdown, it may well have felt even more challenging to keep to any kind of routine. We hope that the information below helps you find your way to some sense of your ‘new normal’ over time: things may never be as they were, but we have some control and choice over what things look like going forward.
WHY ARE ROUTINES SO IMPORTANT?
Routines help children and adults alike develop a sense of control over the daily aspects of our lives, supporting our emotional self-regulation; they help anchor us to the ‘known’ when things around us might be changing.
Focusing on meeting and maintaining our basic needs – such as sleep, diet, exercise, and self-care forms healthy habits which, in turn, help reduce stress levels; internal regulation of blood sugar, hormones, and the mood-boosting properties of exercise all help keep us healthy and maintain some physical and emotional stability when we are feeling destabilised by grief For more information about self-regulation techniques, see our blog from the 13th May.
Reinforcing healthy boundaries and expectations for young people can sometimes feel like a battle: they will often push back to test limits. But this doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As Helen, one of our clinical practitioners, said in last week’s SeeSaw blog post about supporting bereaved teens:
‘Make it clear that normal boundaries concerning behaviours remain firmly in place. Not only does this set clear expectations for young people at a time when life may feel chaotic, it also helps them to understand that your job to keep them safe is still important to you. This will help them to feel secure which, in turn, facilitates regulation of their emotions’
HOW CAN I HELP MY YOUNG PERSON DEVELOP A HEALTHY ROUTINE?
Involving children and young people in taking control over aspects of their routine gives them a sense of accomplishment and ownership and it’s something they can actively participate in, rather than have ‘done to’ them; this is particularly helpful when bereavement can leave us feeling powerless.
- Whilst babies rely on carers to respond to their daily needs and routines, toddlers and primary age children benefit from support to develop a growing sense of independence in their self-care and routine tasks.
- Primary-aged children and those with SEN particularly benefit from seeing a visual routine – this could be a chart, fridge magnets, dry wipe eraser board or stickers that makes use of pictures to give children a ‘heads up’ as to what each day will bring.
- The use of colour, images, tactile sort cards, post-its, beads, painted stones etc can all help engage children in planning and checking off items on their daily routine; physically moving a marker or task from ‘To Do’ to ‘Done’ helps reinforce a sense of accomplishment. Most of us love to tick things off our ‘To Do’ list well into adulthood!
- Sharing plans for the following day before bed can help prepare children for what’s coming up, easing anxiety or fear of the unknown when things feel uncertain, as can a simple, reassuring bedtime routine; sharing books and stories, hugs, and listening to gentle music or singing together can all help soothe and reassure younger children, making them feel more connected to their carers and promoting a sense of safety when a key person may be seriously ill or has died.
- Once we hit adolescence, the teen brain can shift dramatically in its sleep patterns, which may fall out of synch with the rest of the family, especially during holiday periods when they don’t have to be up for schoolwork. If your teen likes to sleep in and stay up later, it’s still helpful to encourage healthy ‘sleep hygiene’ by having clear expectations around when to come off screens and how to wind down for sleep. Blue light from screens stimulates the brain and we need at least half an hour clear from it before sleep time. As with adults, having a warm bath, listening to gentle music or nature sounds, a warm (non-caffeinated) drink, or perhaps reading a book are all good ways to prepare the brain and body to rest.
- Listening to ASMR sounds is currently a popular way of helping the brain to switch off and the body relax and is popular with teens. ASMR stands for ‘Auto Sensory Meridian Response’, which describes the pleasurable, relaxing feeling we might experience when listening to particularly soft, repetitive sounds. These could be the gentle whispering of a voice or other sound effects like gentle tapping/brushing. There are lots of ASMR videos on YouTube, which can be listened to with headphones without needing to ‘watch’ the screen. Lots of listeners report it helps them to relax and fall asleep.
- Another knock-on effect of differing sleep patterns is that teens can fall out of synch with family mealtimes, and their diet and mood can suffer as a result. We all know what it’s like to feel ‘hangry’ or suffer a low blood sugar slump. But also, teens can end up feeling socially isolated from the rest of the family, even if they haven’t seemed keen to join in with family mealtimes to begin with! Is there one meal a day you could aim to eat as a family? It may not always be possible, but it’s a good connection point in the day/week and is often a time when teens will actually engage with conversation about what’s going in their world.
- Getting washed and dressed each day is good self-care – even if we aren’t going anywhere, it gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment, keeping our brains and bodies healthy. Likewise, exercise is equally important to our self-regulation. You can exercise together or as individuals, whatever suits your family, but a shared activity such as a walk can help everyone reconnect and have time to check in with one another when you may all be coping with your grief individually in very different ways, which is normal
Lastly, ‘down time’ each day is so important: space and time alone to switch off and relax, and also to stop and grieve in our own way . If we look at the Dual Process Model below, is shows us how healthy grief should allow us to move back and forth between the two main tasks we must go through when dealing with loss: time to experience and process the pain of bereavement, and time to focus on building a new future. Both are important and routines help support us in creating time and space for both tasks to take place.
We might use our down time to scroll social media, play online games, read a book or watch something on TV – it gives our brains a break. So, don’t feel bad for making time to do these things yourself, and let young people know you’re actively encouraging them to do a little bit of what they enjoy! It’s amazing the good will a bit of encouragement to have fun can build…