Learn the signs that your child needs structure and how to create it
Kids act out all the time, and for many different reasons. Did you know one of the reasons is sometimes because they need more structure in their lives? As much as our kids act like they want to be the ones in charge, in reality, they want to know we have everything under control. Read on to find out if your child needs more structure and how to best provide it.
Like many new moms, when I first found out I was pregnant, not only did I have all the feels, but I also had no freaking clue how to actually be a mom.
Yeah, I wanted kids of my own. But outside of that, kids were not my thing. I was literally afraid of them. I had NO idea how to interact with them, let alone raise one.
So being the resourceful person that I am, I asked my mom friends for advice. Two of them recommended a book called “Moms on Call” which I bought and clung to throughout my first year of motherhood.
The most important lesson I learned from that book is that kids need structure. They may act like they don’t and they may act like they hate it. But don’t let that fool you.
Structure helps kids to feel safe and secure. It lets them know what to expect. Imagine you’re in another county where you don’t understand the language. Everything is new to you, and I mean everything. You have no idea what a typical day is like or what is socially acceptable and what isn’t.
That would be super stressful, right? It’s kinda the same for our little ones. Our world is big and scary to them.
So setting up a schedule and helping them know what to expect and when every single day brings a sense of calm to them. It reassures them that their parents have it all under control and everything is going to be just fine.
That all makes sense. But the thing that I struggled with the most was exactly how much structure to give. Hindsight being 20/20, there were many times when I was way too stringent with schedules because I was so paranoid of not providing enough structure.
So when I had my second baby, I swung in the complete opposite direction and structure flew right out the window. And my older son gave me cues to let me know that something needed to change.
Here you’ll find what I mean by structure, why it’s important, the most common signs that are telling you it’s time to put a bit more structure in place for your kiddos, and how to go about doing it.
What Does Structure Mean?
When I first started learning about providing structure for my soon-to-be born baby, I thought, “Oh ok. This sounds good. I’m definitely going to do this. But ummm… what exactly does providing structure look like??”.
So if you happen to be wondering the same thing I was, when I talk about structure, I’m talking about creating an environment where our kids know what to expect and when. It’s really that simple, and there are a number of easy ways we can establish it.
Structure looks like routines, clearly established rules and limits, consistent and fair consequences, and activities that our children know they can use to fill their time.
The Importance of Structure for Kids
Change is stressful for adults. It’s even more stressful for our little kids who aren’t developmentally mature enough to know how to process all the big feelings that come along with change.
On top of that, things are constantly changing in their worlds!
There is this really cool app called the Wonder Weeks. If you have a newborn or infant, I highly recommend you download this app (it’s free!). The app is based upon the book, The Wonder Weeks (I did not read this book, but based upon how much I loved the app, I’m sure the book is worth every penny).
According to the Wonder Weeks website,”Research has shown that babies make 10 major, predictable, age-linked changes – or leaps – during their first 20 months of their lives… With each leap comes a drastic change in your baby’s mental development.”
Basically, your baby is having a major social, language, and/or motor growth spurt every other month with each spurt lasting about a week or so. In addition to this, there may be other (very common) changes in your baby’s life that are external, like going into daycare, moving to a new home, switching from breastfeeding to bottle, giving up the paci, moving from your bed to their crib, just to start!
And the change continues as our children grow older. New classmates, new teachers, new sports, new skills, new rules and expectations.
AND all of this is out of their control! When you think of it this way, it’s no wonder our kids have meltdowns. It’s completely overwhelming!
Now imagine having structure for your kids. Routines and consistent outcomes for everyday actions that never change. No matter how crazy our worlds get, we always have that structure to rely on. It never changes. It is our constant.
Can you see how that can be comforting? It is for us adults too.
The Benefits of Providing Structure
It’s easy to understand how children can find calm among the chaos when there is structure provided to them. But there are some other really worthwhile benefits that come along with structure, other than providing a sense of security.
1. Reduces the amount of power struggles.
We might manage our days by going with the flow with no real plan. But to our kids, this might feel like complete chaos. When our kids know what’s coming next, they’re less likely to get upset and push back than if we were to just spring something on them.
Also, if we have rules in place and they are learning what is acceptable and what isn’t, they are less likely to push back when we tell them to do something (or not to do something).
2. Teaches kids self-discipline, responsibility, and independence.
There’s a quote that I repeat to myself whenever I don’t want to do part of my nighttime routine (usually loading the dishwasher or making lunches for the next day). It is “self-discipline equals freedom”. So true!
Getting our kids on routines teaches them healthy habits that will make their lives easier, all the way into adulthood. It teaches them to do things that they know will help their future selves, even when they don’t feel like them doing them.
3. Teaches kids how to delay gratification.
This is a really important foundation to lay down for our kids because when they get older, it’s all too easy to get what they want instantly, even when it’s not good for them (think credit card debt!).
If we set expectations, like you don’t get a snack until you eat your dinner, you can’t watch TV until you finish your homework, or writing a toy down on a wishlist instead of buying it right away, then we will teach our kids a skill that will serve them well into adulthood.
4. Teaches kids about the world and how to successfully live in it.
Just like we have to learn how to parent, our kids have to learn how to live within the rules and expectations of our world. We have books, podcasts, and friends who can help us figure out this whole parenting gig.
Our kids have us. They will later have friends who teach them things as well, but in most cases, it’s much better if we’ve taught them how the world works before their friends do!
Setting limits and consistently following through on consequences when needed is a key way to do this.
5. Gives parents the opportunity to plan meaningful moments with their kids.
Putting structure in place can be trying as our kids push to see how serious we really are about it. But once they have gotten used to it, it makes our lives a whole lot easier! We have more moments to actually breathe, and that means more opportunities to really connect with our kiddos and build a strong relationship with them.
It also means we can get some much deserved and necessary “ME TIME”!!
6 Signs Your Child Needs More Structure
How do you know if your child needs structure (or more of it)? Here are some signs that this may be the case.
1. It’s a fight with your child every time you try to transition from one activity or place to the next.
Often times, our kids just need to know that a transition is going to be occurring soon. Letting them know that it’s time to go at that exact moment, or to stop playing and put pjs on now, will catch them off guard if we don’t let them know ahead of time.
Remember, many of our kids can’t tell time yet and they don’t realize that the next thing in their day is coming up unless we tell them.
Also, if there is some sort of routine to their day, like we eat breakfast, get dressed, and go for a walk outside everyday, then when it is time to move from one thing to the next, they are ok with it because they know that’s how it goes.
2. Your child doesn’t follow rules you may have put in place.
Kids are going to test their boundaries, and they are sure as heck going to break rules from time to time. But if it’s happening a lot, it may be because you aren’t following through with the consequences that are supposed to follow.
This is a form of structure because they know that when they do x, y happens every single time.
3. Your child doesn’t know how to keep himself busy without you.
If your child is used to having you available to play with him or you are always sacrificing things you need to do to focus on your child instead, he may not have learned how to play on his own.
He’s used to relying on you to provide the entertainment, so when you do try to steal a bit of time to catch up with a friend on the phone or fold some laundry, he’s tantruming that he wants you to play dinosaurs with him.
Having structure in this case could look like having time set aside each day for your little one to play on their own. When they are used to this, you can then use that time for whatever you want or need to get done.
4. Your child acts out, rebels frequently, and/or you have constant power struggles.
If your child doesn’t know what to expect everyday, she may feel anxious and out of control. Children don’t typically know how to handle such complicated feelings. They will act out as a way to get your attention – like “Hey! I’m feeling these awful things and I don’t know what to do! Help!”.
5. Their sleep is inconsistent.
They may go to bed a different time every night, wake up at a different time every morning, maybe take an afternoon nap, maybe take no nap. There’s no set rhythm or routine.
This makes for cranky kids, for sure!
6. YOU feel burned out and like you never have a second to yourself.
You feel like your day is controlled by what your child wants or needs. You’re literally at the beck and call of him. By the time you’ve finally gotten your kid to sleep, you’re crawling into bed yourself. Just to wake up in the morning and do it all over again. You never have time for yourself and you feel like you’re about to lose it!
How to Create More Structure for Your Child
Creating structure means creating an environment for your kids that is consistent and predictable. Consistency means that we’re doing the same thing every time. We respond to the same behaviors in the same ways.
Predictability means that we and our kids know and expect what’s going to happen.
Lastly, we need to follow through on anything that we tell our kids. This is sooo hard after a stressful day or when you’re sleep deprived, but if you can push through, it will be so worth it!
Creating structure does not have to be complicated. No need to overthink this – trust me. Here are some of the ways you can begin providing more structure for your kids.
1. Create routines.
If you’re like me, I don’t see myself as a fan of “structure”. But in reality, I’m not a fan of rigid structure. I am one of those go with the flow people. But at the same time, I find comfort in my morning routine (shower, coffee, email) and if that gets interrupted, my entire day is off. I bet there are parts of your day that you enjoy too.
I think most people are middle of the road like this with structure, and I think that’s a very healthy way to approach it with your kids.
Give them an outline of their day. There are “outposts” that are there every single day, but what happens between them is flexible. These outposts guide them through their days and give them a sense of time and control.
Also, knowing what’s coming next in their day means you’ll have less of a struggle with them when it’s time to move onto that next thing.
Examples of routines are morning routines (wake up, eat breakfast, brush your teeth, get dressed) and night routines (bath, pjs, brush teeth, read book, bed).
If your child doesn’t have any routines in place yet, I recommend starting with a night routine.
Night routines help your child get to bed at a decent time and sleep better. If your child is well rested, then it’s much easier to get them into other routines throughout the day.
2. Give your child a heads up before it’s time for a transition.
This little piece of structure works wonders! My little guy is extremely easy going and it’s never much trouble getting him to move to the next part of our day. But my older son – whole different story! He really struggles with transitioning and always has.
Giving him a couple of warnings before it’s time to actually get going on the next thing has saved us a lot of heartache. For instance, if he’s playing with his magnet blocks and it’s getting close to bath time, I’ll give him a 5 minute warning, a 3 minute warning, and 1 minute warning.
Every kid is different and your child may not have much trouble transitioning, so won’t need 3 separate heads up before moving to the next part of your day. In fact, they may not “need” any warning at all – meaning they don’t usually give you a hard time.
However, I’d still recommend taking a moment to let them know that this part of the day is coming to an end and that it’s time to move onto the next part of your day in a few minutes. Reminding them what’s coming next will help provide more of that security.
3. Keep Your Promises.
I know it isn’t always possible to keep a promise due to unforeseen circumstances, but let that be the very rare exception. Promises mean everything to your kiddos and keeping them, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to you, shows them that you are reliable and they can count on you.
They believe you when you say you are going to do something, whether that’s taking them to the park after school or telling them they only have 5 minutes of screen time left and then you’re taking the iPad.
4. Establish family rules.
Family rules are good to have because they help our kids understand what behaviors are and aren’t okay, and why. They help our homes to be more peaceful, and they prepare younger kids for having to follow rules outside of home.
Family rules should be clear and specific. For instance, “Be kind” sounds nice, but it’s too broad for a child to really understand how to follow that. Pick a few rules that are specific to pain points with your child. For example, if your kids are always jumping on your couches and beds, and that drives you absolutely nuts, a family rule might be “All of our furniture is for sitting or lying down”.
I wouldn’t go crazy with too many rules, because really, who likes to have to follow a gazillion rules. Kids can’t remember a ton of rules and you run the risk of your kids always feeling like they’re breaking a rule or doing something wrong.
I’d start with 2-4 rules, depending on the age of your kids, and see how they do with that. You can always update or add to them at a later time once your child has a good grasp of them.
5. Enforce fair consequences, when needed.
With positive parenting, consequences are usually a last resort. But when it does come time for a consequence you’ll want to make sure that you’re following through with it and that it’s a consequence that makes sense and is fair. Consequences should be related, respectful, reasonable, and helpful.
Consequences that make sense to your child and that are applied consistently for certain behaviors provide structure because your child knows that if they act in Way A, then Consequence A will always follow, no matter what.
A Final Word of Advice
As I mentioned in the very beginning of this post, when I had my first baby, I became insane about structure. Now granted, I definitely had some postpartum anxiety going on, but I was ridiculously focused on the schedule for my infant.
If nap time was supposed to start at 10 am, my kiddo was in the crib at exactly 10 am – not a minute before, not a minute after. If there was a family party scheduled during his afternoon nap, we were not attending the party.
Don’t be like me. We missed out on so many things because we became slaves to our baby’s schedule (that we implemented!). And to be honest, I think it actually caused more anxiety for my baby than it did provide a sense of calm!
I was anxious over the schedule, and he could feel that. Also, he’s a human baby. Not a robot on a maintenance schedule. There were times where he needed to sleep a little longer or less, eat a little more or less, etc. And I really tried to force him to fit to these predetermined expectations and schedules.
That’s just not healthy for anyone.
I tell you this to show you that you need to be flexible with structure. Yes, having no structure at all is not good for your kids. But being too rigid about it isn’t good for them either. Plus you will drive yourself absolutely nuts!
Do your best to apply some structure to your kid’s world in a way that works for them and you. Some days are just not going to go according to plan and that is more than ok! If overall your child knows what to expect, then you’re on the right track.
You got this!
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