High Structure Parenting for Anxious Kids

Just what is High Nurture/High Structure Parenting and how does it help anxious kids?

Daddy Kalkidan reading

Last September I wrote a post explaining high nurture/high structure parenting and I was reminded of something from Kalkidan’s early days in our family.

Due to trauma, Kalkidan was extremely hypervigilant, she was always watching and listening, always in a state of fear. Even after being safe and loved for a long time, she remained hypervigilant.

She needed nurture and she was desperate for structure.

One of the best examples of this in her first months home occurred each night at the dinner table. As the meal wound down, Kalkidan would begin to nervously chatter. Her English wasn’t very good yet, but she managed to get her message across.

Dad, Dad, pajamas, pajamas?

Yes, Kalkidan, we’re going upstairs and it’s time for pajamas.

Teeth dad? Brush teeth?

Yes, then you’ll brush teeth.

Book, Dad? Book? Read?

Yes, Kalkidan, I’ll read a book to you and Claire. We’ll sit together and I’ll read two books. You can choose one and Claire will choose one.

Sing, Dad, sing? Pray?

Yes, Kalkidan, I’ll tuck you in bed and sing to you, then I’ll pray.

Sleep, Dad? 

Yes, then it will be time to go to sleep.

Every night for a long time she asked these questions, often repeating the sequence of questions a few times.

In an effort to ease her anxiety, we made charts with each task shown in order – simple pictures of pajamas, a toothbrush, book, music, hands folded in prayer, a pillow for sleep.

Charts were made for morning routines too.

The more she could anticipate what was coming next, the safer she felt.

Higher Structure = Increased Felt Safety

I had always had a dinner menu, but as I learned more about Kalkidan’s need for structure, I created a menu for breakfast, lunch and snacks.

Chore charts were prominently posted on the refrigerator where she could see them.

There are many ways to increase structure and reduce anxiety; each child’s needs are unique.

Two years after joining our family we enrolled Kalkidan in school. As a homeschooling family since the beginning, this was a very difficult decision and a significant change for our family.

She loved school. Kalkidan relaxed and learned well in an environment where everyone moved through the day as a group following one set of instructions. The classroom routine was just what she craved.

The following fall she transferred to a small private school and I thanked God every day for uniforms. Fewer decisions each morning made for a happier girl – which made for a happier mom.

If you have an anxious, hypervigilant child, I urge you to keep up the nurture and try adding more structure to your child’s day.

Carefully plan routines, make charts with or for your child, commit to a sleep schedule, and keep life simple.


If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Attaching in Adoption by Deborah Gray.

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Lisa

 

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

17 Comments

  1. Bethany Adams
    January 30, 2017

    Thank you so much for this!

    I would love to know more about how to structure weekends and what you have found helpful. We are really struggling with one of our kids. We’ve managed to make the week fairly structured and predictable but the weekends are very hard.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 30, 2017

      You’re right, Bethany, weekends are hard! We enlisted the help of friends and always had a plan for time out of the house on Saturdays. Afternoons were most important since mornings could be taken up with chores, errands, breakfast, etc. An open Saturday afternoon could destroy the weekend or even turn into a crisis. Church and family dinner filled Sunday until late afternoon, then we began our evening routine by 5:00 which included watching a family show, popcorn and early bedtime. Weekends and school breaks require a lot of planning and still can be very hard.

      Reply
  2. Kirsten Miller
    January 30, 2017

    Lisa, I’m always touched by how you and Russ have worked so hard at studying your children and their needs, and worked at finding out how best to love and nurture them. That’s the very heart of parenting, and I appreciate your example and insights.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 30, 2017

      Thank you, Kirsten, I appreciate your kind words.

      Reply
    2. Emily and Ben
      January 30, 2017

      Agree!

      Reply
  3. Danielle
    January 30, 2017

    Such a good article. We adopted three from fostercare and they need structure or they panic. This does remind me that they used to not be able to handle any change at all so they have gotten better which makes me feel better. Thanks

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 30, 2017

      Sometimes we don’t see progress until we look back – I’m glad to hear your three are growing and healing. Thanks, Danielle.

      Reply
  4. Michele
    January 30, 2017

    Great reminders for me to keep up with the high structure. It is so much easier to let that part go the longer our children have been home. But my hyperviligent the children crave structure, routine, & preplanned days. You can almost see the anxiousness melt away the minute a new chart goes up on the wall.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 30, 2017

      Yes! It is tiring for us to keep it up, but so much better than living with the results of sliding into a free flowing routine. We could do that when Kalkidan was at camp or at school, but when she was home, we kept up the routines and schedules.

      Reply
  5. Cathy Lankenau-Weeks
    January 30, 2017

    YES! We find predictability and structure to be soooo important. Also sleep. 🙂 I was trying to link a document but I have a weekly schedule that I have posted on the fridge above our color coded calendars (Flylady’s calendars are great, lots of big boxes) that lays out our week and I think it’s been really helpful. I post a monthly menu plan too.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 30, 2017

      Cathy, if you email them to me ([email protected]), I would be happy to share them! Thanks

      Reply
  6. Emily and Ben
    January 30, 2017

    It works for ADHD adults too 😉

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 30, 2017

      Good thinking, Emily.

      Reply
  7. vivienne
    January 30, 2017

    I just found your blog this past week. THank you for being open about the hard parts of adoption. You do a beautiful job blending sharing to help others and at the same time protecting your children’s stories. We also have children that have come from hard places. We also put two into school after 2 years home. It has been much better than I would have thought. I was concerned that by sending them to school there would be added issues to deal with but that hasn’t seemed to be the case. I am glad we kept them home the first 2 years as much for us as for them. God seems to tell us when we need to know what the right thing for the year is and if He says to keep then home in the future we will. It was hard for this homeschooling mommy to let them go!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 30, 2017

      That was so hard for me too, Vivienne! I’m glad you found my blog – I hope you stay for a long time. You only have 2,000 posts to catch up on 🙂

      Reply
      1. vivienne
        January 30, 2017

        (: I will get right on those 2,000 posts!!

        Reply
  8. Lisa
    July 2, 2018

    I do agree with this. I’m seeking ways to incorporate more structure into our homeschooling day. One of my children desperately needs it. She struggles with learning and has a very short attention span. Any tips on how to provide structure for a child like this?

    Reply

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