As the new year gets underway, it's very easy to get overwhelmed with everything that everyone in the family has to get done. In fact, we just passed the annual “Ditch Your New Year’s Resolutions Day.” It’s almost universal to start feeling like all we are doing as parents is presiding over not-very-organized chaotic homes. It’s particularly common when we are raising children who had a history before we became part of their lives and who come with all sorts of expectations, habits, and frustrations.
The good news is that there are some things that will make a significant difference and help avoid the usual chaotic home environment. There is no one perfect solution, but there are some important principles that can help.
Concentrate on Holding the Center
Many years ago, I took my foster daughter with me on a work trip, and we visited with friends in the area. My friends were working parents with numerous kids, and every family member had music lessons, school activities, volunteer work, and other places to be. After an evening of shuttling everyone around, my friend sat down and said, “I’m sorry that our lives have been so chaotic during this visit.” My daughter immediately said, “Oh no, I think everything is very serene here.”
Thinking through how my daughter and my friend could have such different views of the family, I realized that they were looking at different things. My friend was looking at the packed schedule and long to-do lists. My daughter, on the other hand, was looking at the family relationships. Yes, they were all busy, but they had a strong foundation of love and respect for each other. All of the chaos was outside the relationships. Inside the family, the center was holding.
The lesson I found was to pay attention to our relationships and keep them at the top of our priority list. Sometimes we can’t avoid the chaos. In those times we need to concentrate on keeping the relationships as strong as we can. At the end of the day, what matters in our family life is not what we managed to accomplish, but whether we have been able to forge positive relationships with each other. More important, as long as the center is holding, we can better manage the chaos surrounding us.
Keep Your Focus on the Positive
It is very easy to get so focused on what we want our children to accomplish that we spend all of our time discussing their shortcomings. With the best intentions, we undermine our kids’ motivations and, perhaps with traumatized kids, their overall mental health. Our kids will have a hard time making a positive change if they only get negative feedback.
There’s no doubt that our kids could do many things better, but then, the same is true about us. When giving the advice that our kids needs, they (like us) will be much more receptive if we start by noting the things that they do right. If our kids see some level of success, they will be better able to manage the big feelings that can create toxic family dynamics and feed into home chaos. The best way to encourage them to change behavior is to find little things that they do right and the virtues that they are developing, and keep your focus on helping them continue those successes.
Aim for Stable Routines
One of the main causes of household disorganization is the lack of family routines and structure. One of the best solutions is to develop manageable schedules that you can actually enforce. One of the ways kids know that they are in a safe space is when they can predict their routine and know the consequences for breaking household rules. A good first step might be to plan family meals as often as you can during the week. I always struggled as a single foster parent with having a set dinner time, but I was able to sit down at some point most nights with my teens. For families with small children through preteens, a family game night often works well. Other areas that kids can benefit from structured time is school work, bedtime routine, and screen time,
It can be challenging to have set times when older kids get involved in their own activities. We still need to build a schedule, either with a specific time or range, so that our kids know what to expect next. It’s always good to build relationships by carving our time for activities that involve the whole family. There really isn’t a better way to build family relationships than spending time together.
You also need clear boundaries for behavioural problems. Sometimes kids are testing their boundaries, and they will be reassured (although they won’t admit it) by knowing where those boundaries are. They also need to be able to predict the consequences of pushing past those boundaries, or at least know that their world won’t fall in. Understand that they may not get with the program right away. Many of our kids come from a background of family instability and they may be used to a high level of chaos. It will take them time to recognize stability. All we can do is be patient, calmly stick to our rules, and not let them change our own behavior.
Pick Your Battles
“I just can’t help it; that sort of thing just really bugs me.” How many times have we heard that statement, or said it ourselves? The fact is, we can control our reactions to things that annoy us, and the more issues we learn to let go of, the happier we will be.
Of course, we have to establish healthy boundaries within our family. Mutual respect, for example, should be non-negotiable. Beyond those issues, though, most of the flash points in a family are issues that we can let go past us without damaging family bonds. Some bad behavior, for example, may come from delayed child development, and we are better off dealing with it when our kids have the executive functions to understand what’s happening. We need consequences at a level they can understand, but we shouldn’t always interpret their slow development as insolence or stubbornness.
Sometimes we will be reacting to legitimate trauma triggers, and those are difficult for us to manage. They hit us at a level deeper than logic, and most of the time our brain reacts before we have time to think it through. But we can find techniques to manage even those issues. Some people find help in prayer or meditation, while others use biofeedback to manage involuntary reactions. One friend told me how she would close her eyes and envision unclenching her hand finger by finger. By the time her hand was completely open in her mind, she was able to deal more logically with the situation.
Whatever the technique, we need to learn to let go of our grievances, even the legitimate ones. After all, we often are asking our kids to let go of their legitimate grievances and control their trauma triggers because we believe it will make them happier in the long run. If it works for them, then it will work for us. If nothing else, we need to be a role model for the behavior that we want to see from them.
Invest in Relationships and Memories
Many years ago, I read a series of studies (that I can’t find now) showing that accumulating possessions did not make people happy. Up to a certain point, material wealth correlated with happiness. Beyond the point where people could cover their basic needs, however, increased money and possessions did not reflect increased happiness. What did correlate in happiness in these studies were activities that represented memories and connections. For example, bowling memberships and travel had a higher correlation with happiness than a new car.
The takeaway from those studies is that we should invest our family resources in common activities that build relationships. Yes, extracurricular activities are good and important for our kids. But find ways to participate as a family — attending the ball games, for example, or watching a cheerleading competition. Even if the other kids are bored, they will learn the importance of showing up to support people in the family.
Embrace the Power of Boring
Finally, learn how to not buy into other people’s chaos. Traumatized kids sometimes create chaotic households because that’s what is familiar to them. They don’t necessarily like it, but it is what they know. Even non-traumatized kids go through phases when they emote and react rather than thinking things through. We need to learn how to counteract those tendencies by being steady, stable, and even a little bit boring.
That’s not how we like to see ourselves. I certainly always planned to be a hip, cool adult. But then I realized that all of the somewhat boring adults in my life had given me a stable foundation that I never could have gotten anywhere else. They weren’t famous adventurers, but they showed me the power of stable relationships. As one of my older relatives said once, “I’m pretty much like gravity. I’m not glamorous or exciting, but I’ll always be here.”
There is a lot of power in boring stability. We may not be able keep our kids from following their emotions into mistakes and chaos. But we don’t have to follow them there. Instead, we can work to give them a stable base to come back to. Being like gravity can be a powerful gift to our children.
As with any part of parenting, there are no sure-fire techniques to avoid chaos. Our kids have agency and will make their own decisions. But if we can learn from these techniques, we can give them a stable center to retreat to and learn from.