07 September 2020
As children learn how to navigate new routines and varied environments for this year, having a routine and structure will be more important than ever. Please read below about the importance of Structure in a child’s life and consider the ones you have established, or need to establish, for your children.
If we think of “structure” as a building, then an ideal structure would be solid and would provide safety and security for the people it holds. Likewise, the concept of “structure” for children includes the creation of an environment that organizes a world of chaos into one of safety and security. Two important components of structure are routine and boundaries.
Routine provides structure by creating an environment that is predictable. It helps a child organize a day into a consistent sequence of events. A predictable world fosters trust in those who are setting the routine, trust that they can be depended on in a consistent, predictable way. Children in crisis or children who have suffered long-term losses from trauma have often lost the ability to trust anyone or anything. Trust in a caregiver can develop over time. If the caregiver establishes a daily routine, the predictability and security of that structure will more readily allow the trust to develop. Even in healthy, intact families there is a routine that is established for the day. Most parents know that if there is a sudden significant deviation from the routine, many children will be upset. Routine provides structure that helps a child feel safe and secure.
The word “boundaries” implies limits. Boundaries are lines not to be crossed. There are physical boundaries such as fences, doors, property lines, and one’s physical body. There are psychological boundaries such as personal space and feelings. Children are not born with boundaries. A newborn infant does not distinguish itself as a separate being from its caregiver. However, as the caregiver responds to the infant’s needs and the infant associates the sight, sound, smell and touch of the caregiver with its needs being met, then the infant develops a sense of “self ” and “other” that is based on trust. That first boundary, that first sense of a child being separate from others, is based on trust that basic needs will be met with loving care.
If healthy boundaries arise from a sense of trust, then boundaries that are established as a child grows should also have some basis in trust and loving care. Rules and limits are boundaries that caregivers establish very early. There are two basic reasons for rules and limits: to keep people safe and to allow people to live together in some harmony. Both of these reasons stem from love. The first limit a child usually hears is the word “no” when he or she is about to do something potentially dangerous or harmful. We value children as precious gifts to be protected, and we set these limits to keep them safe. We are, however, not just interested in ensuring personal survival, but also concerned with helping our children develop appropriate social relationships. Man was created in the image of God. Unlike other creatures for whom “survival of the fittest” is the law, man was given the charge, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This rule then becomes the basis for other rules and limits that caregivers establish for children. We are teaching children how to live with others in the way our Creator intended. This teaching comes to us from an example of perfect love. Establishing rules and limits for children with this origin in mind is actually a very loving act of parenting. For children in crisis or suffering ongoing trauma who never had the opportunity to develop trust, the establishment of rules and limits from a place of love is critical to foster that trust. Rules and limits need to be established with thoughtful consideration, need to be consistent, and need caregivers to follow through with strong, positive feedback when they are followed in addition to any negative consequences when they are not.
With the establishment of structure, including routine and appropriate boundaries, the foundation is set that will securely hold the child. It will allow children of trauma to begin to heal and it will allow healthy children to flourish.
About the Author: Dr. Kim Hoover is a child/adolescent psychiatrist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with over 20 years of experience working with children and families. She maintains a private practice and serves as the Medical Director of Youth Opportunities, a nonprofit agency providing mental health services for financially needy families. As a volunteer with CCTI, she serves as a contributing author and a trainer, most recently helping to conduct training seminars in the Philippines and the USA.