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The Importance of Structure for Adolescents with Mental Health Diagnoses

The Importance of Structure for Adolescents with Mental Health Diagnoses

Teenagers may seem chaotic and spontaneous, but often what they need most to balance out their tumultuous adolescent lives is structure and routine. This is especially true for young people who are managing mental health conditions. At Carolina Dunes Behavioral Health in Leland, North Carolina, we offer psychiatric services for young people ages 12-17, and we educate their families in how to help them maintain stability after treatment ends. 

Why Children Need Routines

Following a routine helps us to feel safe and comfortable because we know what to expect. For example, many parents enforce a nightly routine to help their children fall asleep. This might include reducing the amount of light in their child’s space, having them pick up their toys, bathing them, reading them a book and saying prayers, and telling them goodnight. 

A child who is accustomed to following a bedtime routine knows what is expected of them and what they can expect from their caregiver. Their brain has built pathways that associate these steps with falling asleep, which can make it easier for them to do so. For children and teens with mental health needs, structure and routines are even more important because they can help the young person feel like they are safe and life is under control.

Types of Routines

Predictability can be built into any part of a young person’s day. On school days, a teen may need to wake up, eat breakfast, put on clothes, perform hygiene tasks, load up their backpack, and be in the car or at the bus stop by a certain time. It may be tempting, on weekends and school breaks, to abandon structure, but this often results in boredom, stress, and unpleasant behaviors. Having an established time for waking up, having meals, completing chores, engaging in recreation, etc. can help young people maintain more consistent expectations and behaviors.

Benefits of Routines

It can take anywhere from 2-9 months for a routine to become automatic, but there are many benefits to creating diet, sleep, and exercise routines, including:

  • Better mental and physical health 
  • Decreased stress for people who have health issues or difficult life events
  • Decreased decision fatigue, as a daily schedule eliminates the need for decisions about what to do next
  • Reduced likelihood of disruptive behavior

How to Build Routines

The routines you build for your children should take into consideration their needs, their development stages, and your goals for them, but that doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel. It’s okay to look online or ask around for inspiration from other people.

  • Get their input. Don’t just make a routine for your child. Talk to them about goals they have and things you need from them and find out what they think would help make those things happen.
  • Focus on what’s important. If the thing that your child is struggling with most is getting out the door on time for school, streamlining their morning routine may be the area that makes the most sense. This is particularly true if they already have routines that work in other areas of their life.
  • Start small. Think about how you would react if somebody changed everything about your day all at once. Instead of implementing a whole new routine, try setting expectations around one or two specific things. For example, a child who spends too much time picking out clothes in the morning might find it easier to get ready if they pick out their clothes the night before or even set out an entire week’s worth of clothes on Sunday night.
  • Piggyback off of existing habits. If your child already does one thing consistently, you can add the new habit directly before or after that behavior. If you want them to pick out their clothes for school the night before, you could make this the next step after they put on pajamas or their last step before they turn off the light.
  • Have a backup plan. Sometimes something unexpected comes up. Weather, holidays, stress, appointments that run late, or any number of other issues can derail plans. Help children to adapt by communicating changes with them and helping them to adjust accordingly. 
  • Model what you want to see. Your child might not listen to everything you tell them, but they see the choices you make. By following routines and maintaining your own self-care to preserve your mental health, you are providing them with an example.

At Carolina Dunes Behavioral Health, we treat numerous behavioral health concerns, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. Structure and routine are key features of our inpatient services, and we work with the families we serve to help them implement beneficial structure at home so that their child’s transition home from treatment will be as smooth as possible.

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