Transition Trouble | How Family Routines and Rituals Can Help

If your child experiences difficulty with transitions, changes or any activity requiring flexibility, you may be wondering what’s making it so hard.

Your child may be hypersensitive to changes in routines or unexpected events for a variety of reasons. Some possibilities include poor organization orplanning skills, sensory issues, developmental delays, inadequate coping mechanisms, maladjustment or an anxiety disorder. If your child also exhibits any of the following symptoms, it could be anxiety that is causing all the commotion:

Symptoms of Transition Caused Anxiety:

• Negative, rigid, perfectionistic or unrealistic thinking patterns

• Irritability, tantrums, anger or aggression

• Constant worry about what might happen

• Avoiding new or unfamiliar people, places or activities

• Excessive clinginess or withdrawal from activities and socialinteractions

• Interruption in sleeping or eating habits

• Psychosomatic complaints such as stomach aches, headaches and fatigue

All children and adults experience anxiety at a natural level, and it’s considered normal until it negatively impacts a child’s functioning at school, home or with friends. If your child is overly anxious for what is expected at their age, it is likely interfering with family life. Adding routine and structure into your home, wherever the opportunity lies, will surely help an anxious child be more successful across his environments.

Avoiding Trasition Troubles Through Routines:

Try to establish consistency and structure by keeping routines as predictable as possible. In situations where transitions are problematic, take a closer look at the environment, and try to observe through the lens of a child. When your child nervously asks questions about an event, provide appropriate answers but be sure to keep them short and sweet. Giving too much information and making too many accommodations sends your child the message, “Wow, this really is something to be afraid of”.

Pay close attention to your tone of voice – keep it positive to encourage confidence. Increase your child’s sense of control by offering two choices for how to make the transition successful.

If you practice routines in your family regularly, both parents and child will begin to feel more under control. Anxious children crave predictability and dislike spontaneity, so by making these minor adjustments to your family’s lifestyle, you can naturally decrease your child’s anxiety.

What is the difference between a “routine” and a “ritual”?

Spagnola & Fiese (2007) illustrate the discrepancy by suggesting that when a family’s routine is disrupted it is considered a hassle, yet when a family’s ritual is disrupted it is considered a threat to cohesion.

Both routines and rituals involve time commitment and continuity, as both are large supporters of child development. The predictability and structure that comes from family routines and rituals is what helps guide a child’s behavior and establish the emotional climate in a home.

When these rituals are age-appropriate, fun and interesting, your child will be the one pointing to your calendar reminding you that “tonight is family movie night!” and “no, you cannot go out to dinner”! Better yet, when children can look forward to rituals on a regular basis, they can better regulate their emotions during the week and better cope with the daily stresses of homework, friends, etc.

What routines and rituals are you already practicing in your home?

Some of the most common rituals include birthday celebrations, family dinners, reading at bedtime, etc. Birthdays and family dinners incorporate both routines and rituals. For example, Friday night dinners represent the routine, while Mexican food on Friday nights represents the ritual.

The ritual component includes your family’s unique twist that says, “our family is special”. When you carry out a routine, adding in some symbolic meaning to the event will help family members feel secure and cohesive with one another. What this looks like for you depends heavily on your family identity, culture, and shared values.

Get creative! Here are some ideas for creating your personalized family rituals:

• Game night. Rewrite the rules of your favorite game together. Make them silly and special for your family—have fun with it!

• Create traditions. Pick a certain place you regularly go, and commit to going on a certain day of each week or month. Mark it on a visible calendar so everyone can see what’s coming up.

• Hello & Goodbye. When saying goodbye for the day, share a secret handshake or signal. When reuniting, commit to really reconnecting with your child for at least the first five minutes—give them your full attention during these transitions and the benefits will multiply.

• Special meals. Meals like “breakfast for dinner” are fun for your child to look forward to on a regular basis. Turn off that TV and make dinnertime a special occasion.

• Rainbows and rainclouds. At dinnertime, share the best part of your day, or your “rainbow,” and the worst part of your day, or your “raincloud”. Everyone takes a turn sharing, even parents! Model healthy emotional expression for your child.

• Reward rituals. Designate a particular treat or dessert that family members receive for special achievements, such as your favorite cupcakes for each good test grade.

• Cook together. Give each family member a designated role each time you cook, or rotate roles with multiple children.

• Special play spot. Together with your child, choose your favorite spot in the house to play together. A walk-in closet might suddenly become a castle! This can also serve as a great coping tool for redirection during times of stress or when they just need some extra comfort.



Chapman, G. & Campbell, R. (2005). The five love languages of children. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.

Spagnola, M. & Fiese, B. (2007). Family routines and rituals: A context for development in the lives of young children. Infants & Young Children, Vol. 205, pp. 284-299.




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