Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Making something ordinary out of the extraordinary

These are tough times for families, children, and practices. In this case, the entire world is going through it at the same time, leaving no escape. There are so many new things each of us needs to do, and for some of the challenges, we are completely thwarted by safety restrictions from doing anything. Adults and children alike are trying to work or learn at home in new ways. This also means that old daily routines have been broken. The sense of disorientation is pervasive. Although it is only one part of what is needed, reestablishing routines can go a long way toward restoring a sense of control and meaning that you can institute for yourself and recommend to your patients.

Routines are important for both physical and mental health at every age and time, but especially when a major change is occurring. Examples of such change include natural disasters such as COVID-19, deaths, or separations from loved ones, but also moving, job loss, or new financial instability. Many families and many doctors and staff are experiencing several of these at once these days.

Evidence from studies of times of major disruption such as divorce, a death, war, and natural disasters show that parenting tends to shift to being less organized, with less overall discipline or more arbitrary punishment, and, in some cases, less parent-child connection. Children, on their part, also tend to act differently under these conditions. They are more irritable, upset, anxious, clingy, and aggressive, and also tend to regress in recent developmental achievements such as maintaining toileting and sleep patterns. Parents often do not see the connection to the stress and react to these behaviors in ways that may make things worse by scolding or punishing.

I was really surprised to hear Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., Nobel laureate in economics, talk about how even he has trouble judging risk based on mathematical probability. Instead, he recognizes that adults decide about risk based on the behavior of the people around them – when others act worried or agitated, the person does too. Children, even more than adults, must decide if they are safe based on the behavior of the adults around them. When parents maintain routines as closely as possible after a major disruption, children feel reassured that they can expect continuity of their relationship – their most important lifeboat. If their parents keep doing the things they are used to, children basically feel safe.

Simple aspects of sameness important to children are very familiar to pediatricians: always wanting the same spoon, the sandwich cut the same way, only chicken nuggets from a certain store. This tends to be true in typically developing toddlers, preschool, and some school-aged children. The desire to have the same story read to them multiple times – until parents are ready to scream! – is another sign of the importance of predictable routines to children. All of these are best accommodated during times of stress rather than trying to “avoid making a bad habit.” All disruptions of routine are even more disorienting for children with intellectual disabilities or those on the autism spectrum who are generally less able to understand or control their world. Children and adults with preexisting anxiety disorders also are more likely to have more severe reactions to major disruptions and need extra understanding.

Routines for eating at least something at regular times – even if the food is not as interesting as prior fare – provide a sense of security, as well as stabilizing blood sugar and bowel patterns. Keeping patterns of washing hands, sitting together as a family, and interacting in conversation, rather than watching TV news, allow an oasis of respite from ongoing stresses. Family meals are also known to promote learning, vocabulary growth, and better behavior.

Setting a schedule for schooling, play, hygiene, and exercise may seem silly when parents and children are home all day, but it instills a sense of meaning to the day. Making a visual schedule for younger children or a written or online one for older children can be a shared activity in itself. I remember hearing about how important changing clothes and cleaning teeth were to prisoners of war during World War II in maintaining a sense of normalcy in that time of chaos.

Exercise is particularly important to set as a routine as it directly reduces stress – even if it may need to take new forms. While there are lots of online exercise programs for adults, it is better for everyone to go outside if they can manage adequate personal spacing. There they can experience the orderly changing of the seasons and the weather, as well as soak up some sunshine. Interactive parent-child play serves multiple purposes of stress relief, seeing each other more relaxed, interacting, and having fun!

Routines for sleep are especially important. To fall asleep under normal circumstances requires a sense of safety, perhaps for evolutionary reasons because of the vulnerability of the paralysis that is part of REM sleep stages. Fear at bedtime is common in young children, as is disorientation in the elderly. Both respond to reassuring bedtime routines done the same way every night, such as brushing teeth, changing clothes, washing up, reading or being read to, and praying – if these were the previous habit. When there has been a major disruption, these routines take on added importance, even if some modifications need to be made in sleep location, privacy, etc. Keeping schedules for naps, bedtime, and wake time as stable as possible makes sleep onset easier and sleep maintenance more likely. It also increases the chances of adequate sleep duration. Getting enough sleep stabilizes mood, reduces irritability, and improves daytime concentration and problem-solving skills. These all are especially needed by adults as well as children when there are major disruptions.

Maintaining chores at times of disruption can be extra difficult, plus this may seem to parents like an added stress for their already-stressed child. But in fact, children are reassured by adults’ continuing these requirements. Not only is an expectation that chores be done a signal that life can be expected to proceed normally, but having children do things to help – such as cleaning up, restocking soap and towels, or emptying trash – gives them an active role and hence some sense of control.

Discipline is, in essence, also a routine. Maintaining standards for kindness to others and following rules can be especially difficult when life has been disrupted because emotional lability is more likely in both adults and children when severely stressed. It is important for parents to consider the source of the misbehavior as possibly stress related and to interrupt it in a gentle and understanding way. A parent might say: “I know you are upset by all the changes. It is even more important now than ever to be kind to your brother.” Under stressful conditions, it is especially important to ask how the child was feeling when acting up, but also to “speak for them” about possible stress-related reasons for their behavior. While parents may correctly say that their child will “take advantage of this excuse,” it is still a teaching opportunity. Children have little insight into these connections to their feelings and actions, but they can learn.

Times when old patterns are disrupted also are times for making new habits. The main new habit I recommend for stress relief and overall mental health are the practices of mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness may be easier to teach children as it involves paying close attention to one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but doing this without judgment. Children often are naturally better at this than adults, who have layered on more experiences to their thoughts. We pediatricians, as well as the parents we serve, can benefit – especially in stressful times – from sharing in the simple ways children experience the world.

Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She reported no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at pdnews@mdedge.com