Typical family routines are a nightmare for parents of kids with trauma history.

The kids are scattered.

They are hyper.

They leave stuff all over the place, dawdle when I am in a hurry, rush through when they need to take their time, destroy items, dump out expensive products, leave messes, forget items everywhere, and have all kinds of other cleaver ways of gaining control that I never in a million years would have thought of myself.

(These children are brilliant teachers for the parent.)Mornings, Bedtimes, and Other Routines for Kids with Trauma History|The Holy Mess

Executive Functioning Skills, Developmental Delays, and Early Childhood Trauma

Classic methods for getting a morning or bedtime routine will teach systems such as a visual schedule and a reward chart.

For our son, some of his extensive testing has revealed executive function deficits due to prematurity. We studied books such as Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential.

This book teaches breaking down tasks into small, manageable parts and taught us to give our son a clipboard and check off the items. He is responsible for keeping track himself, along with watching the time. This did provide a positive step in the right direction.

Our younger son, who has more significant developmental delays, has benefited more from a visual schedule, although even he does quite well without one most of the time.

For us these items were a baby step in recognition, but didn’t go nearly far enough. Our son may have some executive skill deficits, but it’s really not our core problem.

Our son’s core problem is trauma, anxiety, and PTSD.

It seems like a far jump to say that a kid dawdling with brushing his teeth is because of childhood trauma, doesn’t it?

Yet for these kids, it’s really not. The reason is because for my son, and kids like him, the way he manages his anxiety is by attempting to control the adults and situations in his life.

A little anxiety might mean leaving a string of toothpaste strands on the bathroom sink and wet towels on the floor.

Will I notice? Will I clean it up? Then my son thinks maybe he can’t really trust me. He thinks he’s got the power here.

It might seem like no big deal for me to just sigh to myself and clean it on up after my kid goes to bed.

The thing is — it’s a big deal.

These little issues are a really big deal because it’s about power and control.

A lot of built up anxiety might result in a full-blown rage, punching the wall, lying, stealing, or other highly controlling behaviors.

This does not mean I have to be Super Mom and catch every single situation. It’s impossible. But if I start catching most of them, with the help of the right therapist to work through the tough emotions, my child WILL start to heal.

How do I do this?Mornings, Bedtimes, and Other Routines for Kids with Trauma History|The Holy Mess

Mornings, Bedtimes, and Other Routines for Kids with Trauma History

1. Simplify the routines. Nancy Thomas says she gives her kids 7 morning tasks to do in the bathroom in 7 minutes. While they are in there, she sits outside the door with her thermos of coffee and morning devotion. Then when they come out, she checks the bathroom. If they need more time, no problem, she gives them a few more minutes. We have created our own routine, but the point is, create something basic and stick to it. Yeah, it does stink that we have to be a routine Nazi for awhile, but that is how it’s going to have to be.

These routines are important because 1. It won’t last forever and 2. These become important indicators of how our kids are doing. We’ve spent this summer working with our boys on a few very basic ones:

  • In the morning, they make their beds and pick up the floor before coming down to breakfast.
  • Wipe up the bathroom when you are done using it.
  • Dinner manners: Don’t start eating until we pray and Mom or Dad take the first bite.
  • After dinner, ask to be excused and clear your plate.

Those might seem minor, but for our boys to make their bed every morning, A+ job, without being asked, is really quite huge! (Honestly, our older kids don’t do it.)

When our boys start slipping in one of these areas, I know something is up and we need to deal with it, NOW. For example, if I see the bathroom sink all covered in muck, or one of the boys leaves the table without asking, we need to catch this and deal with it early before it becomes big.

2. Practice. Practice the new routines. It takes some time to develop new habits,  but the kids catch on quickly. Even our younger son who has developmental delays has been able to do all these things just fine. He often pleads, “Help me,” but that’s part of his way of seeking attention.

(Which by the way, it’s not all bad when kids seek attention. They are asking because of a need they have. We just want to be sure they are asking, and meeting the need, in a healthy way.)

We like to practice new routines several times in a row. This can be done as a bit of a game, but we are serious about it. We go through the bedtime routine 3x in a row at 8:00 AM, for example. If a child has been really dragging their feet or giving me a hard time, I like to do a practice session when they would be normally having fun. Then they know I am serious.

We want to be sure our kids know the steps to the routine, fair and square.

3. When our kids attempt to control us, we call them out on it. Now the fun begins!

I am not a perfect parent. My kids give me plenty of chances to try again, because they constantly test the boundaries.

I used to get really angry about this stuff — as much as I tried not to — because I saw my child as trying to one-up me. Now that I understand his behavior is a result of trauma and anxiety, I have more understanding and compassion.

However, it’s still critically important to call a spade a spade here, because this is what is required for healing. I know my child and the amount of intensity he can handle, how much to push and when to back off. This takes practice.

Let’s say my son is getting ready in the morning and he is lying on his bed in his room, even though I asked him to brush his teeth.

Mom: “Son, what is your task?” (I never repeat a direction. I only say things one time. This is also about control and power. Children with these issues love to have you repeat directions over and over again, even though they heard you the first time.)

Son: “Ugh! What! I don’t know?!”

Mom: “Check.”

Son: “Yes, Mom.” (Note: We say, “Check” when our kids respond to any request or direction we give with anything other than “Yes, Mom,” “Okay, Mom,” or “Yes, Ma’am.” They get one “check” to correct their own behavior.)

Mom: “What is your task?”

Son: “Fine, I’ll brush my stupid teeth!” (Note: My son did NOT need me to repeat the directions repeatedly, like I would have done in days of old. He is showing here that he knew exactly what he was supposed to do. He was choosing not to do it in order to attempt control.)

At this point, my son is showing me he is not calm, so we would move to a calm down activity, such as 5 jumping jacks, 5 backwards jumping jacks, or 5 minutes on the mini-trampoline. This isn’t a punishment. This is to get out some adrenaline and reset the brain.

Mom: “What is your task?”

Son: “Brush my teeth.”

Mom: “Yes, go brush your teeth now.”

Son: “Okay, mom.”

These methods require time, energy, and a huge boatload of patience, but by the end of the summer our kids are into a new, healthier routine.

Still StandingStill Standing|The Holy Mess

Bible Verse

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,

Ephesians 6:10-14

Journal Prompt

Which part of God’s armor do you need most in your life right now?


Mornings, Bedtimes, and Other Routines for Kids with Trauma History/The Holy Mess

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