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How to Talk with Teenagers About Routines

Considering Your Routines

Routines and schedules can influence the flow and energy of any given day. If you’re reading this updated blog during the COVID-19 outbreak, you and your family might be exploring and redefining (and even struggling) with the concept of routine this uncertain time. Here’s my definition of routines: actions I take to care for my time and energy.

Before we talk about teenagers and their routines, I invite you to reflect on your own relationship to daily habits. Consider: What is your morning routine? And bedtime routine? What is your process for scheduling and keeping up with appointments and calendars?

Stop. Breathe. Feel.

Notice the sensations that have come up as you begin to take inventory. What do you notice in your body? What do you notice is happening with your thoughts?

Name whatever has come up.

Now, take 3 comforting breaths– any breath that feels healing and relaxing to you.

Your sensations can help you become more aware of the ways your routines are serving you– or not. There is no need to judge these feelings; instead, stay curious.  Your own consideration of routines will offer you empathy and understanding as you approach this topic with your children and teens. 

The Teenage Brain and Routines

Predictable, consistent routines can be an anchor for peaceful mornings, smoothly flowing after-school hours, or relaxing weekend mornings.

Teenagers’ prefrontal cortexes— the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking and problem-solving– are not yet experiencing consistent, fast-acting connections to the rest of the brain. Therefore, teenagers are more prone to risk-taking, boundary-testing, and inconsistent behavior.

You see where I am going with this, right?

Teenagers, especially, need structure to thrive. From developing a healthy relationship with their technology and social media, to getting enough sleep (they need 9 hours on average!), to developing strong study skills or applying to college, to practicing self-care and playing, to building a social life, they have a lot to manage!

The Long-Term Impact

Think of the qualities you want your teen to have by the time they are 18 and ready to go off to college or a job. I invite you to make a mental or written list of 5-10 qualities.

Did independence come up? What about resilience? Or resourceful? Maybe self-aware?

Routines provide your teens with pathways into these very qualities! Notice, too, that your teen is already embodying many of the qualities on the list. Celebrate this!

Consistent routines support your teen in being self-reliant and practicing self-regulation, and they make daily living run more smoothly for everyone in the home. When you, as the parent or caregiver, let go of directing or worrying about the long list of daily needs, chores, and habits, you can focus on connecting with your teen, rather than managing them. Furthermore, with support, your teen can step into their own agency.

It will take time and your continued presence for your teen to build routines that serve them best. In the end, you will collectively save so much time and stress, and your teenager will be empowered to take responsibility for themselves and their energy.

Talking with Teens About Routines

Parents and educators of young children and children with specific developmental or learning needs often use routine charts with images or pictures to teach shared responsibility, consistency, and self-sufficiency. However, many teenagers consider these visual aids unnecessary or even childish.

How, then, can you support tweens, teens, and young adults in building daily routines that best suit their social, emotional, and mental development?

With patience and focused, mutual conversation, time, and practice. And breath! Finally, before we get into the talking points, I’d like to name the fact that we should not be working hard to meet our routines and schedules; instead, they should be working for us, helping us to create more peace and ease in our lives. 

10 Tips for Talking with Teens about Routines

1. Begin the conversation on their cue. For instance, if your teen expresses that they are tired or stressed about staying up too late or shares another detail that relates to their daily routine, take the opportunity to LISTEN and ask curiosity questions. You might say, “What else?” or “Tell me more” or “Can you say more about that?” When possible, allow your teen to initiate this conversation, rather than bringing it up out of context.

2. Connect with your teen’s experience. Share that you, too, are working to build routines that are helpful and that this is a constant practice, rather than something you master once and for all. Consider discussing how transitions and certain parts of the day can be challenging for you, as well as what is working for you. Together, you can share pros/cons and successes/challenges. 

3. Start small. Allow this to be a process with many parts. Remember (and remind your teen) that small changes can have a big impact. For example, you may invite them to start reflecting on with their morning routine because this is when they feel most rushed and grumpy.  Save the conversation about after-school routines for another day.

4. Ask (a few) open-ended questions. Consider supporting your teen’s critical thinking process by asking, “What steps do you need to take each morning to be ready for school?” or “What parts of the morning seem to set you up for success?”

5. Invite your teen to document their plan. As they work on their list of steps or routines, you can work on yours, too. Let your teen decide where they will keep the list. A few clients I work with keep their lists on cork boards in their rooms or on the refrigerator. Be sure to support your teen in including rest, play, or relaxation in their routines (and you too)! This will be a living document, meaning it can be edited and changed as needed.

6. Explore the order the steps need to be in. Ask your teen questions such as, “What needs to come first?” “Which steps are priorities?” and “What tasks seem most helpful in your routines?”

7. Discuss time management. This can be asking how long they expect certain tasks to take them. Additionally, help your teen consider how long they need for after-school breaks, social media scrolling, self-care, or chore routines, for example.

8. Offer support. Specifically, ask your teen how much support and accountability they need and want from you and what that support might look like. It might be verbal reminders at first, collaborating on certain tasks, sharing family calendar, or giving them more autonomy. 

9. Monitor progress together. Set yourself and your teen up for success by acknowledging that it’s okay to find the best routines through trial and error. After a week or so, check-in with them using questions like, “What’s working in your morning routine?” or “What’s not working?” and “How does this routine seem to be helping you?” or “How do you feel when you complete your routines?” 

10. Return to this conversation regularly. It’s always okay to share observations when you see that routines have become inconsistent. Share your observation in a neutral and curious way. “I’m noticing that you are rushing out the door with your breakfast in hand. Is there something in the routine that might need to shift?” Be sure to celebrate what’s working as well. “It’s cool to see you making time for piano each evening. I’m glad you are making space for creativity.”

One Step at a Time

Again, if you are reading this while your family is in shelter in place, please remember to give yourself and all of your family members lots of grace. Routines are not the same as schedules; they don’t have to happen at precise times. Remember, routines are actions you take to care for your time and energy, and you only have to take one step at a time. If you or your teen are ready to add another layer of support in your day, check out my guide to building unique support systems.

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